Student exchange programmes badly hit by Covid-19

Spain is a popular choice for Swiss students. Keystone

The autumn semester begins in Swiss universities on Monday, but far fewer Swiss students are going abroad and far fewer foreign students are coming to Switzerland, according to a survey by the public radio, SRF.

This content was published on September 14, 2020 - 10:40

All institutions reported a decrease in exchange programmes of at least half, said SRF, which asked all ten Swiss universities and both federal technology institutes for their data and heard back from seven of them.

It said the figures for foreign students in Switzerland had dropped by about 40% as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Although there had been more applications for exchange programmes than usual at several universities this year, many had been withdrawn or postponed to the spring semester in the hope that travel will then be possible again without any restrictions.

Normally, many students from Switzerland want to go on an exchange to China. At the University of Zurich, China was among the three most popular exchange countries last autumn semester.

Other popular destinations include France, Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, Australia, Sweden, Japan and Spain. But because of coronavirus exchanges are mainly limited to European countries. Students are still coming to Switzerland from China but significantly fewer than last year.

This is not the case, however, at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich, where there are no exceptions. “The exchange outside Europe has been suspended by ETH Zurich for the autumn semester,” according to the media office. The University of Bern also says no one is travelling to China this semester.

The same goes for the United States, with which the University of Lucerne this year has no exchange, unlike last year. The Covid-19 pandemic means many non-European countries are not accepting students.

Online exchange?

Nevertheless, “interest is unbroken,” maintains Ellen Krause, head of the international department at the University of Bern. Only a few students would completely forgo going on an exchange, she said. “Most of them simply choose another country or postpone the trip.”

In theory, now that many people are working from home, it would also be possible to study abroad online.

Krause disagrees. “We really want the study programme to be part of a stay abroad. This includes the exchange with other students, lecturers, the physical presence and participation in cultural life. An online exchange would be like taking part in a course and that would be a completely different matter,” she said.


Following a 2014 Swiss vote which targeted European Union immigration, Swiss participation in the Erasmus+ university exchange scheme was suspended. An interim arrangement supported by Swiss funding is now in place under the name Swiss-European Mobility Programme (SEMP).

Under this temporary solution, Switzerland is a partner country of the scheme, which offers students more limited opportunities than full membership would. The workaround is expected to remain in place until 2021.

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