Thousands of Swiss students could see their study grants slashed by up to two-thirds under government plans to cut federal spending.This content was published on October 6, 2003 - 21:46
The changes mean students will become more financially dependent on their canton, raising fears that those in the poorer cantons could see their grants dwindle.
From 2007, the federal government will give cantonal authorities greater control over further education, and will slash its budget for student grants - leaving cantons to make up the shortfall.
But cantonal contributions will depend on each canton’s budget – a system bound to create inequalities among students, according to Thomas Frings, the political secretary of the Swiss students’ union.
Currently just over ten percent of students are eligible for a government grant towards living costs, amounting to SFr6,147 a year in 2002.
Stéphanie is in her fourth year of medicine at Lausanne University. She gets by on a budget of SFr1,800 ($1,340) a month, made up of a study grant worth SFr500 and SFr300 from her mother. She works in a café to earn the rest.
But if her grant were reduced Stéphanie, like many others, might have to give up her studies. Charles Kleiber, state secretary for science and research, is alarmed by the prospect of lower student numbers.
“Switzerland already has one of the lowest numbers of students in Europe,” Kleiber told swissinfo.
He says student grants have been slowly diminishing since 1975 and the future looks bleak.
Instead of a budget from the federal government of between SFr90 and SFr100 million a year, cantons will receive around SFr25 million in future.
The government has said it will still hand out a limited number of grants, but only for needy university students, who account for 16 per cent of all higher education grants.
Walter Moos, a government official involved in the funding reforms, says there is no guarantee that the cantons will make up the financial gap.
“We keep telling [cantonal authorities] that it’s not just an economy drive but also a transfer of responsibility, and that in the end they should break even financially,” Moos told swissinfo.
However, some cantons have already made clear that they will not be forking out more for grants. Canton Bern intends to reduce its education budget by 25 per cent, forcing students from more modest backgrounds to take out bigger loans.
The cantons of Basel, Fribourg and Thurgau are also making students assume greater financial responsibility for their studies.
The problem is compounded by upcoming European-wide university reforms, known as the Bologna Declaration, in which Switzerland will be taking part from 2005.
Bologna aims to harmonise the length of degrees in European universities in a bid to make it easier for students to study abroad. A bachelor’s degree will take three years, and a master’s degree a further two.
But education experts predict that this will lead to more years spent at university, as the reforms will effectively devalue the bachelor’s degree.
Kleiber admits that the fact that Bologna will create a greater demand for student grants has not yet been discussed in Switzerland.
For Charles Stirnimann, head of the association for cantonal education directors, students are likely to struggle in future.
“It has been a long time since anyone spoke out in support of equal opportunities. You can clearly see where the political priorities lie in this country!” he said.
swissinfo, Anne Rubin
The federal government is set to cut its contributions to student grants from 2007.
The cuts represent a loss of up to SFr75 million a year for individual cantons, which will be expected to make up the shortfall themselves in return for more autonomy for higher education.
Some 10% of higher education students currently receive grants for living expenses.
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