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Swiss universities forge overseas links post-referendum

In the wake of the Swiss referendum on immigration, the University of Basel has announced an ambitious internationalisation strategy. Other institutions in Switzerland are also eager to cushion the impacts of the referendum on academic exchange.

Senior officials of Basel University got together this month to discuss ways to mitigate the negative implications for academic exchange in the European region resulting from the February referendum's narrow vote to curb immigration.

Soon afterwards, the Swiss government announced that it would not proceed with talks with Croatia about a labour market agreement, and the European Union responded to this breach of its free movement of people principle by postponing negotiations with Switzerland on the Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+ research and exchange programmes.

Horizon 2020 is worth EUR80 billion (US$110 billion) and Erasmus+ EUR15 billion. Swiss and other European officials and universities warned that the outcome could be disastrous for Swiss higher education and science both financially and in terms of international collaboration and exchange.

Universities look abroad

The University of Basel is seeking to establish intensive bilateral links with a selection of three to five institutions outside Europe.

It is already involved in activities with three overseas institutions: Virginia Tech in the United States, East China Normal University in Shanghai and the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Basel is running the Global Perspectives Program with its US partner. The scheme focuses on preparing future academic leaders for an increasingly diverse and global higher education system. East China Normal University helped its partner set up a Confucius Institute in Basel.

Links with the University of Cape Town go back to an extensive bilateral research programme agreed between Switzerland and South Africa in 2007. The first phase comprised 16 joint research projects in health and biomedicine, bio- and nanotechnologies as well as the humanities and social sciences, and involved some 70 young researchers in the two countries.

The University of Basel was represented in the Swiss delegation that visited South Africa in 2012 to discuss the 2013-2016 phase of the programme, which brings in research on renewables as well.

"I have mentioned three potential names," said Basel University Rector Antonio Loprieno, "but there could also be others".

From August 2014, Basel will run an international office focusing the institution's efforts and acting as a 'welcome centre' for students, lecturers and other staff from overseas. "Support measures are planned for overseas students," said Vice-rector Hedwig Kaiser, who is to head the new office.

According to Loprieno, who is also president of the Swiss University Rectors' Conference, the issue of credit transfer was never satisfactorily resolved in the context of Switzerland's involvement in the Erasmus student exchange programme, which Switzerland is excluded from for the time being.

Loprieno stressed that in his institution's new programmes, students will be able to spend a full year at a partner institution and have credits transferred without having to negotiate achievements in each module of their programme.

He conceded that Swiss universities were seeking to rejoin Erasmus+ as soon as possible. But he said several institutions had meanwhile widened their horizon in terms of student exchange.

"We want to step up our international involvement," said Michael Hengartner, rector of the University of Zurich. "It is not only since the referendum that strategic alliances have been gaining in importance."

Hengartner believes that international alliances will become indispensable if universities are to retain global attention. Zurich's international office has specially created an internationalisation office to this end.

Another top Zurich institution, Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule Zurich - ETH Zurich - is planning to work with institutions in four Asian countries.

Details of future research collaboration with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are to be discussed at a workshop in Singapore this June. ETH already has a branch in Singapore to explore options for academic exchange in Asia.

* Michael Gardner Email: michael.gardner@uw-news.com

Related Links
Implications for universities of the mass immigration referendum
Germany calls for restraint in Swiss-EU relations
Europe shelves HE and research negotiations with Swiss
Swiss poll result could damage higher education
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