Swiss poll result could damage higher education

The shock result of a Swiss referendum on immigration policy could have serious consequences for the country’s higher education and research system. A top higher education official has warned that curbs on immigration could spell a “great tragedy” for Swiss science.

The outcome of the poll on 9 February was a close call, with 50.3 % of voters supporting a curb on immigration and contingencies being made conditional on the needs of the economy. Now the government has three years to turn the vote into law.

The campaign for tough immigration controls was launched by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, or SVP. Both the government and all parties ranging from the centre to the far left had rejected the initiative, which was also opposed by the business community.

Last month higher education and research representatives issued a manifesto condemning the SVP campaign.

Switzerland has four language groups comprising German, French, Italian and Rhaetian. Nearly a quarter of its residents are foreigners. Two thirds of its professors are from abroad.

Germans account for around 300,000 of the foreign population. In Zurich alone, 35% of professors are German. In 2010, the SVP launched a campaign against ‘German nepotism in Swiss higher education’, addressing what was alleged to be latent ‘Germanophobia’ among students and professors.

Rectors concerned

Dr Antonio Loprieno, president of the Swiss Rectors’ Conference and one of the authors of the January manifesto, stresses how important German and other foreign academics are to Swiss science.

“If we had to make do without this pool, and for that matter without any pool of people from other countries, this would be a great tragedy,” Loprieno says. “It would mean our plunging into mediocrity.”

Switzerland signed an agreement with the European Union on the free movement of people in 1999, and a string of other issues have been negotiated as well, ranging from common industrial standards to the free transit of goods on roads and motorways.

“The worst-case scenario would be for the EU to say ‘it’s all or nothing’ when the Swiss Federal Council presents the decision of the Swiss sovereign in Brussels,” Loprieno maintains, referring to the ‘guillotine clause’ in the agreements that makes all of them conditional on the free movement of people.

The EU has already warned that there can be no renegotiation of free movement, and that it will not accept any contingency arrangements for immigrants.

EU officials also stress that should Switzerland suspend ratifying an agreement on extending freedom of movement to the EU’s newest member, Croatia, together with EU member states, Swiss participation in the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and the Erasmus programme promoting the exchange of students, trainees and teaching staff will be shelved.

Switzerland will be holding a further referendum on the issue of free movement with regard to Croatia later this year.

Loprieno concedes that Swiss academics were largely over-optimistic in their assessment of the referendum outcome. In the run-up to the referendum, there was a widespread view that people would support Switzerland as an open-minded and internationally oriented centre of higher education and research.

“What counts now is to accept the sovereign’s decision and see to it that its implementation does as little harm as possible to research in Switzerland,” Loprieno concludes.

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