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Erasmus strives to widen Swiss horizons

In a scene from the French film "The Spanish Apartment" by Cédric Klapisch, an Erasmus student in Barcelona gets more than he bargained for

The successful Erasmus exchange programme between universities in Europe is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Switzerland is a popular – albeit expensive – destination but Swiss students lag behind in terms of interest.

“Erasmus promotes cultural understanding between nations and strengthens the feeling of community. This can have a stabilising influence, above all in crisis situations,” said Marco Amherd, a 24-year-old Swiss and one of 230,000 students who participated in the European exchange programme last year.

Amherd, who comes from canton Valais, officially represented Switzerland at the Erasmus 25th anniversary celebration in Copenhagen in May. After receiving a Bachelor’s university degree in economics and music in Zurich, he took advantage of Erasmus to move to Toulouse in France to earn a Master’s degree in music at the Centre d’Etude Supérieures de Musique et Dance.

Amherd had searched long and hard before finding a tutor with “an excellent reputation” for his instrument, the organ. During his ten-month exchange he forged strong relationships with fellow musicians, “which is absolutely essential for a successful career”.

Education plus adventure

Most young people who enrol for one or two semesters at one of the 4,000-plus participating European universities do not want to focus purely on their studies to improve their chances of getting a job. They also sign up to hone their language skills, meet new friends, experience other cultures and countries, and to break free of the humdrum routine of everyday life.

Amherd believes that an Erasmus exchange offers much more than a mere change of university and residence: “Being away from home for a longer period of time really helped me become more independent and self-confident, which is very important for a musician.”

About 2,400 Swiss participated in Erasmus in 2010-2011. France, Germany and Spain are the most popular destinations for Swiss, and all three countries offer a wide array of study options. Likewise, over half of the 2,700 Erasmus students who came to Switzerland last year hailed from these three countries.

“Most of the students come to learn German or French,” said Brianne Magnat, president of the Swiss section of the Erasmus Student Network (ESN). “But they also come here to do winter sports and because nature is close by. Another attraction is Switzerland’s central location, which is ideal for travelling around Europe.”

According to Magnat, the Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne, and the universities of Geneva and Lausanne are popular “due to their excellent reputations. Geneva is very attractive due to its being so international and to the countless United Nations organisations headquartered there.”

Destination Switzerland

The number of people who complete an Erasmus exchange continues to rise every year. However, more students still come to Switzerland than the other way round.

“We have relatively good ‘incoming numbers’,” said Karin Christen, the Erasmus programme director at the ch Foundation for Federal Cooperation. “This shows that Switzerland is generally an attractive destination country because of the excellent reputation of its universities.”

But the high cost of living is definitely a barrier for foreign students, she added: “The high prices are undoubtedly a reason why some people don’t come here.”

Even though the European Union takes the cost of living in each country into account when handing out financial aid, Switzerland remains an expensive country.

Magnat would like to see a better grant system so that more students can afford to study in Switzerland for a few months.

Another obstacle is the acute lack of places to live in cities like Geneva and Zurich. “Lots of students want to do an Erasmus exchange in Switzerland but cannot find lodgings, so they don’t come,” said Magnat.

Language is another hurdle to studying in Switzerland, said Christen, because many degrees are not offered in English.

Amherd agreed that more courses should be offered in English, especially at Master’s level, because this allows students to compare internationally. Nevertheless, he felt universities should not just offer classes in foreign languages such as English, “because the language can also shape the culture of a university.”

Switzerland has been participating in Erasmus for twenty years, but has been a full member only since 2011. After Swiss voters narrowly turned down joining the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992, it remained an indirect Erasmus partner.

Full membership is significant because it offers more partnerships and options. Amherd hopes it will help bring more students to Switzerland in the near future.

Life-changing experience

Despite the number of Swiss Erasmus students doubling in the past ten years, participation lags behind other European countries.

“Many Swiss students work part time to help finance their studies. They would have to give up these jobs if they went away for a year on the Erasmus programme,” said Christen. “Or they feel intimidated by the administrative side of organising an exchange.”

Magnat said mutual recognition of course work was another problem.

“Not all work completed at a guest university is recognised by the home university,” she explained. “Because students don’t want to waste time, they decide not to do an exchange year.”

“The so-called ‘Learning Agreement,’ which is signed by both guest and home universities, is supposed to guarantee that all completed course work is recognised. Nonetheless, you keep hearing that it doesn’t always work. This is a problem everywhere in Europe, and keeps coming up in discussions.”

Switzerland is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Erasmus exchange programme for European universities on September 27, 2012 in Bern with prominent guests and a student party. The ch Foundation and the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) are organising the party.

Launched in 1987 as an exchange programme for European universities, Erasmus now has 33 participating countries (27 European Union countries, plus Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Croatia, and Turkey) with over 4,000 participating universities.

By the end of 2013 about three million students will have completed an exchange stay through Erasmus.

France, Germany, and Spain are the countries that both send and receive the most students.

There are 35 Swiss universities, Federal Institutes of Technology, Universities of Applied Sciences, teacher training colleges, and technical schools that take part in Erasmus.

In 2010-11 about 2,400 Swiss students and 400 teachers completed an Erasmus stay, double the number of ten years ago.

In 2010-11 about 2,700 exchange students came to Switzerland, double the number of ten years ago.

Switzerland’s annual Erasmus budget is about €6 million.

The most popular destinations for Swiss students are France, Germany, and Spain. These three countries also send the most students to Switzerland.

The most popular Swiss universities for Erasmus students are the Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne, and the universities of Geneva and Lausanne.

(Translated from German by Kathleen Aeschlimann)

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