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UBS funding casts doubt on university independence

The mood seems to have changed recently at the University of Zurich, with questions being raised about the transparency and value of sponsorship deals Keystone

A sponsorship deal between the University of Zurich and UBS bank has put the spotlight on the private funding of state-run universities which some say is crucial to compete globally. But critics warn academic independence could be jeopardised.

Ursula Jauch is categorical.

“It’s a Faustian pact. UBS has had a major reputational problem for years and is employing sophisticated marketing to clear its name,” the University of Zurich (UZH) philosophy professor declared.

In April 2012 UZH and the Swiss bank surprised many by announcing a CHF100 million ($112 million) sponsorship deal to fund five university chairs and establish a “UBS International Centre of Economics in Society” at the UZH economics department.

Private and public partnerships are not new for Swiss universities, but cloaked in secrecy this arrangement has raised several red flags. Alarmed by the deal, Jauch is one of 30 leading Swiss professors who in February launched the “Zürcher Appell” – a call for the protection of academic independence which now has 1,500 signatories.

“Are today’s universities still sufficiently independent in an age of cooperation and sponsorship?” the online petition asks.

After months of resistance, UZH bowed to a decision in November by a university appeals committee to publish 90% of the up-to-then secret contract between UZH and UBS following pressure from two journalists who pushed for its release.

Critics said the university didn’t want to publicise the document as it clearly detailed the Swiss bank’s level of involvement at the university and specific ‘rights’. But the UBS centre’s officials downplayed the furore and the bank’s possible influence on research.

Yet the story refused to go away. In mid-December UZH students demonstrated, calling for the deal to be scrapped. Then on December 19, the university and the bank issued a statement declaring they had decided “out of public interest for transparency in the use of private funds” to publish the entire document.

“The additional published sections of the contract show that the independence of research and teaching is totally guaranteed,” the statement said.

“The department will nominate a member of the board of UBS to the advisory board of the [economics] department”

“A lecture hall in the premises of the department named ‘UBS International Center Lecture Hall’” (This was later dropped)

“UBS to reasonably benefit from the UBS Center’s activities by…granting privileged access of UBS personnel and selected clients to courses…supporting and organising regular exchanges between members of the UBS centre, the chairs and UBS specialists…providing educational access to UBS center’s personnel for UBS’ employees and clients…providing access and organising interaction channels between chairs and UBS…chairs are expected to participate at the annual “UBS International Economic Forum”.

“For the entire period of UBS Foundation’s sponsoring of the UBS Center, UZH and the department will not enter into agreements for the sponsoring of an institute, other research centre or collaboration…in the fields of economics”.

“Parties undertake to keep this agreement and its contents strictly confidential.”

Funding figures

The controversy has nonetheless sparked a wider debate on sponsorship, private funding, influence and transparency at Switzerland’s 12 public universities.

Between 1995 and 2010 the total annual amount donated by private donors to state-run universities rose from CHF470 million to CHF1 billion, but remained stable as an overall percentage of the total given to Swiss universities at 14%. This varies considerably from institution to institution from 7-40%.

Marcel Hänggi – one of the reporters who forced UZH to publish the contract – said the numbers failed to tell the real story, however.

What has changed, he said, is that global competition and various new laws over the past 15 years have caused a subtle shift towards a more entrepreneurial approach.

“Universities have started to behave like corporations,” he commented. “They are experimenting with themselves but they have not funded any academic research into the consequences.”

Wider debate

In his speech to the Zurich Economics Society on December 4, Lino Guzzella, the rector and future president of Zurich’s other university, the Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ), took time to underline the importance of private donors.

“The close ties between the economy and science is one of the decisive factors behind Switzerland’s success model,” said Guzzella. But ETHZ did not “accept every donation”, he stressed, adding that contract research was an exception and the most important asset for a scientific institution was “trust and independence”.

Its sister institute, the EPFL  in Lausanne, has some 31 sponsored chairs worth CHF11.1 million, of which 14 are linked to private firms such as Nestlé and Merck Serono. EPFL spokesman Jérome Gross downplayed their importance as well as the institute’s business-friendly image, saying the chairs represented only 1.4% of total annual expenditure.

But he admitted that money from private companies was a “true source of finance that allows Swiss universities to develop in the knowledge that public funds are not increasing sufficiently”.

Not negotiable

Swiss universities generally fare very well in rankings compared with other European institutes. Antonio Loprieno, president of the Rectors’ Conference of Swiss Universities (CRUS), and rector of the University of Basel, says fundamentally, private intervention in Swiss universities – ‘the most Americanised’ academic market in Europe in terms of openness to business and competition – should not be questioned as it could damage their ability to compete globally.

“Because of the possible threats to investments in Swiss universities and to anything that might limit competitiveness between universities, CRUS felt we are now in a period of transition,” said Loprieno. “We should not discourage potential donors and should make more institutional experiences before making conclusions.”

The Rectors’ Conference of Swiss Universities, backed by Johann Schneider-Ammann, the cabinet minister in charge of higher education, recently rejected calls from the Swiss Science and Technology Council – a body representing academics – for explicit common guidelines governing relations between universities, chairs and private partners, and for greater transparency for contracts.

Secret deals

Loprieno felt public universities were also justified in keeping contracts with private sponsors secret, a practice which also varies considerably in Switzerland.

“A university is primarily a public institution but also to an increasing degree a competitive institution at the global level, so a minimum of competitiveness requires sometimes to be more flexible on what we understand in terms of transparency,” he declared.

A recent sponsorship case involving his university and the pharmaceutical association Interpharma to fund a Health Economics chair suggests how different approaches can create confusion. Unlike the university, Interpharma purportedly wanted to publish the details of the contract and frustrated by the institute’s opaque approach made it known that the deal was worth CHF500,000 a year.

Back at UZH, the mood there seems to have changed. In November, rector Andreas Fischer resigned amid a separate scandal.

Temporary UZH rector Otfried Jarren told the Schweiz am Sonntag newspaper on December 8: “Sponsorship at universities is pretty borderline, as it’s about giving something and expecting something in return, visibility and market presence. It’s not always easy… There will be no more sponsorship deals like the one with UBS in that format.”

According to the Der Bund and SonntagsZeitung newspapers, the US defence ministry funds various research projects at Swiss universities.

In the past two years they have given over $1million to a dozen different military-related projects at Zurich, Bern and Neuchâtel universities and at the ETHZ, where the US airforce has funded a three-year PhD post worth $200,000 looking at improving aircraft structures.

Both the president and vicepresident of the Swiss parliamentary committee for science, training and culture criticised these military collaborations and called for them to be stopped.

The US military also funds a space  junk research project at Bern University’s Institute for Astronomy, which the department says is of civil rather than military interest.

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