SWITZERLAND: Rectors can limit foreign student

Universities can limit the number of foreigners they enrol if they fear overcrowding, according to an expert opinion commissioned by the Swiss Rectors' Conference. The report was prompted by fears of a huge influx of German students into Switzerland this year.

If universities are threatened by capacity bottlenecks, the report states, they may impose restrictions on enrolment of foreign students. These could range from higher tuition fees and making admission dependent on school-leaving marks to setting quotas for foreigners and special entry exams.

Such measures, the report says, would not violate any international agreements that Switzerland has entered into, such as the Lisbon Convention.

Switzerland is very popular with foreign students. Out of its population of around 7.78 million, there are 132,000 students at the cantonal universities and the three technical universities.

Student figures have almost doubled since 1990. The number of foreign students at cantonal universities and the technical universities has grown by 8%, to 35,700, since last year. Out of these, 30,000 come directly from abroad, that is, they obtained a higher education entry certificate elsewhere. The country also has a number of other higher education institutions.

The debate over levels of foreign students growing out of proportion was fuelled less by right-wing politicians from the Swiss National Party warning of foreigners taking over the country, than by developments in Germany. With military conscription ending there and shorter secondary education resulting in more school-leavers, the number of Germany's potential first-year students is set to swell.

Universities in the German-speaking areas of Switzerland are an alternative to overcrowded German institutions or not finding any place to study at home.

St Gallen was the first Swiss university to respond to these developments by introducing admission tests for all foreigners, higher tuition fees for them that could virtually double by next year compared to now, and a general 25% quota for foreigners.

However, it now appears that fears among universities are unfounded. "For this autumn semester, there will at most be a slight increase in the number of German students," said Antonio Loprieno, President of the Swiss Rectors' Conference and Rector of Basel University.

Institutions have nevertheless toughened up admission regulations for German students. Either applicants already have to be admitted at a German university, or their Abitur or school-leaving certificate marks must reach a certain average.

Still, Loprieno advised Swiss institutions not to resort to the more drastic measures that the new report mentions. "If we start discriminating against students from the European Union, we will be giving the wrong signal," he warned. One-sided sharpening of entry restrictions could trigger reprisals against Swiss students abroad, he added.

The issue of masses of German students possibly going to Switzerland clearly relates only to its German-speaking areas. The Universities of Geneva and Fribourg, in French-speaking Switzerland, are eager to attract as many foreign students as possible.

Meanwhile, an intriguing proposal has been put forward by the Verband Schweizer Studentenschaften (VSS) - the Swiss Student Association - and Zug national councillor Gerhard Pfister of the Christian Democratic People's Party.

Students' countries of origin could pay for their studies, and thus contribute to coping with overcrowded lecture halls in Switzerland. Also, this would counter moves to raise tuition fees for foreigners.

The VSS is strongly opposed to higher tuition fees for foreigners because this clashes with the notion of a general right to education.

The new model it suggests in collaboration with Pfister is based on what the Swiss cantons are already practising. If a student comes from a canton without a university, the 'home' canton contributes to the canton that the student's university is located in.

Rectors' Conference Vice-General Secretary Raymond Werlen said this was "an interesting idea". But he maintained that such an arrangement for foreigners would have to be based on mutuality. And then it could pay its way, for there are far fewer Swiss studying abroad than there are foreign students coming to Switzerland.