|Albert Einstein's Swiss passport, issued on 23rd June 1923. Born in Ulm, Germany, Einstein was granted Swiss citizenship in 1901 and held on to it until the end of his life. Einstein was professor of theoretical physics from 1912 to 1914 at ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ranked today as Europe's top technology university.
The rising influx of foreign students to
Swiss universities is bringing more international talent to the country. But the
debate on who foots the bill for welcoming such bright young minds is tying
academics and legislators in knots.
Switzerland prides itself on having some of the lowest tuition fees in the
world, subsidised by the federal and cantonal authorities. This gives students
access to higher education regardless of income, but taxpayers are also shelling
out for foreigners.
Top universities are now bulging at the seams with new students and frequently
cry out for more cash to help them cope. At the same time, the proportion of
overseas students is constantly rising - from 23% in 1990 to 38% in 2011.
Swiss universities jostle with international competitors to reel in the
brightest overseas talent to boost domestic prowess in science, technology and
other fields of research. In addition, business leaders welcome highly educated
foreigners to help plug workforce gaps.
But allocating the cost of hosting raw foreign talent has been the subject a
long standing - and as yet unresolved - political debate that has run on for
“How many students can you take on top of domestic students, and who is going to
fund them - the students themselves, their country of origin or Swiss taxpayers
to an unlimited degree?” Anders Hagström, director of Global Educational Affairs
at Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ), told swissinfo.ch.
Charge foreigners more
Attracting overseas students, researchers and teaching staff is “part of the
genetic make-up” of ETHZ, according to Hagström. “Swiss students get exposure to
an international environment without ever having to leave Zurich,” he told
But rightwing People’s Party parliamentarian Peter Keller does not believe that
Swiss taxpayers should subsidise an increasing ratio of foreign students.
Last year, Keller introduced a parliamentary initiative demanding that the two
federal institutes of technology in Zurich and Lausanne charge foreigners twice
as much for tuition as domestic students.
“Swiss universities are funded by the Swiss taxpayer first and foremost for the
education of Swiss students,” his motion read. “Foreign students are welcome.
[But] they should adequately finance their [own] studies.”
The initiative - - and student anger -- forced the federal institutes to postpone
plans to double tuition fees for all students, irrespective of nationality. With
enrolment numbers rising 50% since 2004, the extra income would have
been set aside to fund increased teaching needs.
The Swiss Union of Students said it was “outraged” by the initiative, adding
that it would fight against the “socio-economic” discrimination of students.
“Foreign students bring higher quality, greater internationalisation and
different points of view to Swiss universities,” Thomas
Leibundgut, union executive member, told swissinfo.ch. “Many of them will stay on in Switzerland, helping
the economy to grow and the country to innovate, so investment in their
education will be returned.”
The union called instead on the government and cantons to stump up more cash to
fund “Switzerland’s only natural resource” – education.
Finding the funds
But state funding, while increasing at above
inflation levels, is still barely sufficient to keep pace with growing student
numbers. More than half of Swiss universities already ask foreigners, who face
higher than average living costs in Switzerland, to pay more than locals in
university annual tuition fees
(Tuition fee for foreigners in
brackets if different to domestic student charges)
Federal Institute of Technology Zurich: CHF1,288
Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne: CHF1,266
University of Basel: CHF1,400
University of Bern: CHF1,310
University of Fribourg: CHF1,310 (CHF1,610)
University of Geneva: CHF1,000
University of Lausanne: CHF1,160 (CHF1,360)
University of Lucerne: CHF1,620 (CHF2,220)
University of Neuchatel: CHF1,030 (CHF1,580)
University of St Gallen: CHF2,452 (CHF4,252)
University of Zurich: CHF1,538 (CHF1,738)
University of Italian-Speaking Switzerland: CHF4,000 (CHF8,000)
(Source: Swissuniversity.ch – fees valid for 2012-2013 academic
While cantons subsidise each other if students
choose to study elsewhere in the country, efforts to get other countries to
contribute to the cost of their citizens studying in Switzerland have so far
foundered on Germany’s refusal to accept the proposal.
As a result, the University of St Gallen has been ordered to cap the number of
entrants from abroad each year to reduce the financial burden on the canton.
Ticino has gone down another route, charging the amount it would receive from
inter-cantonal subsidies directly to foreign students.
This group accounts for two thirds of all enrolments at the University of
Italian-Speaking Switzerland (USI) in Lugano, and they pay CHF8,000 ($8,960) per
year in tuition fees. Swiss students, who can take advantage of cantonal
subsidies, pay half as much.
USI’s tuition fees are several times higher
than the national average for both domestic and foreign students. USI
spokeswoman Cristina Elia explained that the Ticino cantonal authorities
took the decision to help meet funding requirements.
“Assuming that the academic world knows no boundaries, we must find
sustainable models when it comes to expenses,” Elia told swissinfo.ch. “Our
model requires a more direct contribution on the student’s part.”
Finding the right balance between getting enough income and attracting the
best talent from around the world has become a continuous battle for the
Swiss university system.
Francs equivalent to US$1,120 and €818.