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Swiss return to their roots to study

(Keystone Archive)

Around 100 young Swiss who live abroad are studying or training in Switzerland thanks to grants from their home canton.

Every year an association, sponsored by the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad, deals with hundreds of requests for information or financial assistance.

The AJAS (Education for Young Swiss Abroad in Switzerland) has been responding to the needs of those who want to study or get training in their homeland for the past 44 years.

In 2005 it received around 700 enquiries, and so far this year there have been around 800 from numerous countries.

Carl Hedari, 20, a second-year student at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, is typical of many of the applicants.

"In Lebanon they don't have the equivalent of the [AJAS] and that's why I'm here. I am very, very happy that I made this choice," he said.

The same goes for Camila Plate, 19, who lives in Colombia and is studying at Lausanne's Cantonal Art School.

"Back home, there is not a great deal of choice in this subject. Here, I am close to all the major European museums, which greatly increases my chances of success," she said.

Student grants

The vast majority of students who come to Switzerland apply directly to universities.

"But those who lack information, who have difficulties with the language or who need financial help, contact us," said Elisabeth Müller, director of the association.

"Our team offers advice, answers questions, provides contact addresses and ensures the needs of the Swiss abroad are met by the authorities," she added.

At present, the cantons disperse around 100 grants totalling SFr960,000 ($795,000), which are managed by the AJAS.

"Students prize the quality of the Swiss [education] system, notably the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and the hotel schools," said Müller.

"As far as vocational training is concerned, there is little demand for apprenticeship places but there is plenty of interest in technical colleges."

Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology

Switzerland has two such institutes – the ETH Zurich, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2005 – and the EPF in Lausanne, western Switzerland.

European interest

One out of every two applicants comes from Europe, in particular from France. This is followed by South America, which continues to increase in popularity, while interest from Africa, North America and Asia is waning.

"Around 60 per cent of people who contact us are seeking information about grants, compared with 25 per cent in 2000," said Müller. "This indicates that the financial burden is becoming heavier and heavier."

One downside is that because there are 26 cantonal grant systems, the process can be a bit of a lottery.

Some regional authorities pay out higher sums to a limited number of beneficiaries, while others spread grants more widely but more thinly. Some grants are topped up with an interest-free loan.

"The amount can reach up to SFr20,000 a year, depending on the canton," said Müller.

Carl Hedari picked up SFr2,900 in his first year and SFr6,000 this year. "It's not enough but my parents help out and I do odd jobs," he said.

Camila Plate also finds it difficult to make ends meet. As she cannot rely on help from her family, she is going to try to get a top-up from the AJAS, which has a budget for plugging funding gaps.

Budget cuts

But belt-tightening by the government and cantons means Swiss students from abroad are also feeling the pinch.

The AJAS's 2005 report noted that the total amount of grants and loans allocated by the cantons had remained stable or declined since 1993.

According to Müller, most of the young Swiss who make the journey have strong links with Switzerland. Many have studied at a Swiss school abroad.

This is the case with Camila Plate, who studied at the Swiss school in Bogotá. She also has family in Switzerland, but admits she is still getting used to the fact that "people are a little cold and you have to make the first move".

As for Carl Hedari, he plans on settling in Switzerland. "In Lebanon, salaries are too low and there is armed conflict every five or six years. There's nothing to do back home. It's sad, but that's the reality."

swissinfo, Isabelle Eichenberger

Key facts

Requests for student grants from the AJAS in 2005:
North America: 22
Europe: 381 (France, Germany, Spain)
Asia: 38
South America: 167
Africa: 49
Oceania: 6

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In brief

The association promoting education for young Swiss living abroad was set up in 1962 by the Foundation for Young Swiss Abroad, the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) and Pro Juventute.

The AJAS office was formerly in Zurich but has been in Bern since 1989 and is administratively integrated into the OSA.

In 2003/4, the number of new foreign students in higher education in Switzerland stood at 7,567 – 628 of them were Swiss passport holders.

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