Swiss universities form alliances like European dossier stands

Department of Social Sciences, University of Bern. Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

Cut off from European funding programs for research and training, Swiss universities enter into alliances with their counterparts in Europe. This is not enough to replace their participation in Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ programs.

This content was published on Jan 31, 2023 – 09:02 am

The University of Bern became the last university to join the alliance. 1er In December, he joined the ENLIGHT networkExternal link It consists of nine universities, all research-oriented, including Ghent (Belgium) and Bratislava (Slovakia).

“This membership will allow the University of Bern to remain active at a time when education is undergoing major changes in the European landscape,” said Virginia Richter, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bern. In this way, we benefit from the dynamics to develop ourselves.”

Swiss universities are currently fighting to maintain their place in the European research and teaching landscape.

Although Switzerland has never been a member of the European Union, Brussels and Bern have long cooperated in training, research and innovation. But after 2021 and Bern’s refusal to negotiate a framework agreement with the EU, Brussels has scaled back Switzerland’s participation in Horizon Europe, the world’s largest research funding program with a budget of 95.5 billion euros (95 billion francs) until 2027. . Switzerland now has to make do with non-associated third country status, which limits its access to subsidies and funding. Although the confederation replaced the EU with temporary allocations, the blow is severe for the academic and scientific community.

Already in 2014, Switzerland was excluded from full participation in the EU’s Erasmus+ mobility and exchange program after a disagreement with the bloc of 27.

Flagship program

Last year, Brussels allowed Swiss universities to join the “European universities” initiative with associate partner status.External linkA flagship program of Erasmus+.

Born in 2018, this concept encourages European universities to form alliances among themselves to strengthen institutional cooperation.

Specifically, students can now obtain their diplomas by entering several universities affiliated to these networks. This program also supports cooperation in innovation, entrepreneurship and research and training. Its aim: to help strengthen the long-term international competitiveness of European higher education vis-à-vis China and the US.

“Since the pilot stage was intended for Erasmus+ members, Switzerland could not join this program at first. But in 2022, the project was opened to all members of higher educationExternal link In Europe. Switzerland later showed interest”, concludes Amanda Kramer from Swiss agency Movetia.External linkresponsible for promoting exchange and mobility in the learning environment.

European universities attracted by these alliances should apply for funding from the Erasmus+ program. As an associate member, Switzerland does not have direct access to these funds and is not authorized to coordinate or lead projects labeled Erasmus+. Swiss universities should contact Movetia for assistance, in particular to cover participation costs.

More and more alliances

These restrictions have not discouraged Swiss universities. They have already signed agreements with their European counterparts in six of the twelve countries in the country. There is also a university (HES) specializing in professions related to the world of industry. While underlining the importance of these alliances for Swiss universities, Movetia predicts that four new institutions could join these networks this year.

Alliances made by Swiss universities

One of the first universities to join this type of alliance in Switzerland was the University of Zurich with the Una Europa* network, then the University of Lausanne with CIVIS*; Geneva continued with 4EU+*, finally the University of Basel joined EPICUR as a member of the EUCOR European group of territorial cooperation, which unites universities along the Rhine.

* All these unions were able to benefit from European Union funding in 2022External link. Supported by the national agency Movetia for businesses located in Switzerland.

The following four alliances are funded by the Erasmus+ program in 2023:

ENHANCE alliance with ETH Zurich, ENLIGHT with the University of Bern, UNITA EELISA alliance with Western Swiss University of Applied Sciences (HES-SO) and Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW)External link).

Today, there are 44 European University Alliances uniting 340 universities in 31 European countries. The EU wants to increase about sixty unions and about 500 universities by mid-2024.

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Along with the University of Bern, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich already joined the ENHANCE alliance last November.External link, a strong association of dozens of European universities specializing in technology. What open perspectives there are for the two Swiss campuses, and not only in terms of mobility.

“We are also trying to design new forms of collaboration in teaching, creating joint and interactive offers as well as formats to better strengthen students’ interdisciplinary skills,” explains Gunther Dissertori, Rector of ETH Zurich.

The University of Bern is also pleased to join as five other members of the ENLIGHT alliance, the prestigious Guild of European Research Universities. This presence strengthens its visibility in Europe.

Since last June, the Western Swiss University of Applied Sciences and Arts (HES-SO), which has been part of the UNITA (Universitas Montium) network, was also clear to join such an alliance. For Luciana Vaccaro, rector of HES-SO, it was above all about “building an ecosystem for tomorrow’s European citizens”.

“Even though we were excluded from Horizon Europe and Erasmus+, we were able to join this pioneering EU project and I feel privileged to have access to it,” he says.


Switzerland will allocate an envelope of six million francsExternal link To participate in the “European Universities” initiative during 2022-2025. This money comes from a fund intended to replace access to the Erasmus+ program.

For Luciana Vaccaro, rector of the Western Swiss University of Applied Sciences (HES-SO), who will head the coordination group of Swiss universities from February, this funding must be preserved and even increased. “Access to such funding is important for Swiss universities. “Without financial stability, our presence could be compromised,” he warns.

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Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ remain important

But for university rectors, these alliances can only partially provide full access to Horizon Europe or Erasmus+ programs.

“Many researchers in Switzerland belong to the world scientific elite in their field. But excellence in science transcends boundaries,” says Virginia Richter of the University of Bern. He adds that “in order to stay in the race, Swiss scientists must have the opportunity to collaborate with other countries and leading consortia at the international level. Without participation in Horizon Europe, it has become more difficult today.”

His institution has already had to hand over to the University of Maastricht (Netherlands) the direction of work on the use of artificial intelligence for the treatment of diabetes patients.

As part of the Horizon 2020 program, the predecessor of Horizon Europe, the University of Bern participated in 175 projects with the contribution of 500 scientists for a budget of approximately 120 million francs.

According to Günter Dissertori, these alliances at least demonstrate that Switzerland “remains open to European cooperation”.

A necessary signal, as the negotiations between Bern and Brussels on Horizon Europe and Erasmus+, as well as on other institutional documents, are deadlocked. If the government still hopes to reintegrate these two programsExternal linkThe Swiss academic and scientific community has little hope of change for 2023.

Text proofread and approved by Virginie Mangin, translated by Alain Meyer

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