Implications for universities of the mass immigration referendum

On 9 February 2014, Swiss voters approved a referendum aimed at restricting immigration to Switzerland. Since the measure might contradict the principle of free movement of people, which is one of the principles of the European Union, the EU has suspended all current negotiations with Switzerland until the situation is resolved.

This decision will have a serious negative impact on students and researchers since Switzerland will no longer be a part of the Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 programmes for student exchange and research financing in the upcoming academic year.

Yet more problems for the Swiss higher education community might develop as a result of the referendum, depending on its implementation.

The problems for the aforementioned programmes will occur because the negotiations between the EU and Switzerland concerning them were not finished before the referendum took place. The EU made the extension of the free movement of people to new EU member Croatia a condition for signing the Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 treaties.

The Swiss government decided not to sign up to the expansion after the vote since it goes against the referendum. Therefore, the EU has effectively put the negotiations on hold and Switzerland will most likely not be part of both programmes in the next academic year.

Both the exchange and the research programme are regularly renewed by the European Union. Switzerland, as a non-member of the EU, needs to separately affiliate to the programmes.

Switzerland was a member of the Erasmus student exchange programme from 2011 to 2013.

The Erasmus programme provides three components that facilitate study abroad. First, it supplies a legal framework for inter-university agreements that regulate the exchange of students between study programmes. Second, for Erasmus+ members, the EU finances the costs that occur for universities. And third, it provides scholarships for exchange students, which contributes an important part of their living expenses abroad.

As of the upcoming academic year, Switzerland will not be an Erasmus+ member. It will still be able to take part in the exchange scheme, but it will have to finance the whole programme, both for outgoing and incoming exchange students, independently. The Swiss government is currently drafting the financing scheme to ensure Swiss participation.

Insecurity everywhere

The most pressing problem for students lies in the insecurity that has occurred since the referendum.

Since the EU decided to put on hold all negotiations with Switzerland, it is still unclear whether incoming and outgoing students will be financed and whether they will receive Erasmus+ grants.

Additionally, for a long time it was unclear if the European partner universities would continue to accept Swiss students. While this issue has the appearance of being resolved, there is still serious concern that some universities have ended or will terminate the inter-university treaties.

Since Erasmus exchange semesters have to be planned well in advance, this uncertainty is disastrous for students wanting to take part in the programme in the 2014-15 academic year.

Applications had to be handed in by the end of February. After the confirmation of their exchange studies, students have to find a place to stay and the money to finance their studies abroad.

With the prevailing uncertainty, many are unable to undertake these tasks. And neither universities nor the government are currently able to inform students precisely what the situation is because the outcome is still unclear.

Not only Erasmus+ but also the Horizon 2020 negotiations are now on hold. The research programme provides financial support for international research projects.

Without affiliation to the project, Switzerland will not be able to act as a proposing part of a research consortium under the umbrella of Horizon 2020. Planned projects might need to be cancelled or postponed. At least the Marie Curie grants are not affected since they are open to researchers of any nationality.

This might have devastating effects on highly internationalised Swiss research projects.

Long-term problems

Besides the negotiations, which are currently on hold, the question remains: what long-term effects will the referendum have on education?

Hopefully, the current crisis in Swiss-European relations can be resolved and by 2015 Switzerland will become a member of Erasmus and Horizon 2020 again.

It is important to understand that the referendum did not determine a clear path for its implementation and the laws defining the actual consequences are yet to be drafted. The referendum calls for quotas on immigration that maintain the economy's interests while demanding the termination of all international treaties that are not compatible with it.

This might leave open some ways to accommodate both quotas and the free movement of people. If that can indeed be accomplished, there will likely be a way for Switzerland into the Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 programmes.

How the referendum will be implemented within the framework of laws will again be crucial for students: quotas on immigration might affect the accessibility of Swiss higher education for students who are willing to come to Switzerland to attend a whole degree programme.

The Swiss students' union believes very strongly in the principle that students should be able to pursue their studies in the country they choose and without being hindered by immigration barriers. We will stay alert to the issue and continue our fight for students' rights.

* Lea Meister, Dominik Fitze and Melanie Glayre are members of the executive board and the presidency, respectively, of the Swiss students' union VSS-UNES-USU, and are working on the issues of Erasmus+ and student migration.