Students step up pressure over international exchanges

An archive picture from 2014: an Erasmus stamp from a university international office © Keystone / Christian Beutler

Student organisations have handed in a petition with more than 10,000 signatures calling on the government to start immediate negotiations to rejoin Erasmus+, the European Union’s student exchange scheme.

This content was published on September 23, 2020 - 11:12

Without proper participation, they argue, international cooperation in education risks being endangered in the long term.

Following a 2014 Swiss vote which targeted EU immigration, negotiations on Swiss participation in Erasmus+ were suspended (the country had been part of the previous programme).

An interim arrangement was put in place: the Swiss-European Mobility Programme (SEMP). This made Switzerland a partner country of Erasmus+ but offered students more limited opportunities than full membership would. This workaround is expected to remain in place until 2021.

Important step

Francesco Bee, co-head of the Swiss Student Union, said handing in the petition in Bern was an “important step”. 

“Participation would have been, in principle, possible again since 2016. But the government is dragging its feet, although parliament has already given the government a clear mandate to start negotiations with the EU. It’s about time that Switzerland finally started negotiations for full membership of the Erasmus+ successor programme for 2021-2027,” he told swissinfo.ch via email.

The petition, which was formally handed in to the Federal Chancellery on Wednesday morning, has the support of a number of student organisations, plus some parliamentarians. A socially distanced event was held on the square outside parliament to mark the step.

The petition’s supporters argue that the government should foster good relations with the EU to participate in the successor scheme and that education and mobility – and sufficient funding to take part – must be made a priority.

They say that the current Swiss solution is insufficient: it focuses more on students and offers fewer opportunities to those in vocational education than the original scheme.

Furthermore, because each contract needs to be concluded individually, it is difficult for Swiss higher education institutions to find partner institutions abroad. Some overseas universities – like Cambridge – no longer conclude any exchange agreements with Swiss universities. Others have greatly reduced their quotas for Swiss students.

‘Costs and benefits’

The government has said it is closely following the ongoing discussions in the EU about the Erasmus+ follow-up programme and would consider the question of association, “carefully taking into account the costs and benefits involved”.

On Tuesday the minister in charge of education, Guy Parmelin, said that “all the financial elements were not yet in place” for Erasmus+. He has previously mooted autumn as a timetable for looking into the issue. This would make it too late for Swiss students to join any successor scheme from early 2021.

Horizon 2020 

After the mass immigration vote of 2014, the EU also suspended relations over the research programme Horizon 2020. In 2016, Switzerland rejoined Horizon 2020, but Erasmus+ remained excluded. 

The Senate is expected to debate Switzerland’s participation for 2021-2027 in the coming weeks, but there is currently no proposal yet for Erasmus+. 

End of insertion

Swissuniversities, the umbrella organisation, has also voiced its discontent over the interim solution. Another factor: increased red tape when bringing in foreign students, it says.

Education issues continue to be a source of debate. On Tuesday the Senate approved an update to the law on international exchange and mobility in education, which calls for more of a focus outside the EU.

It has already become clear with the new semester that current student exchanges, both for Swiss students going abroad and foreign students coming to Switzerland, have been greatly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

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