Swiss immigration vote already impacting education

Last month, Swiss voters narrowly backed a referendum proposal for strict controls on immigration from the European Union. The final count showed that 50.3% voted in favour of the “Against Mass Immigration” proposal that sought “to limit immigration [and] set quotas for permits issued to foreigners and asylum seekers.”

The referendum proposal was advanced by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party and reflects growing popular concern about immigration in Switzerland.

As BBC News recently reported, roughly a quarter of Switzerland’s population of eight million is foreign.

“In 2013, 80,000 immigrants joined Switzerland’s population of eight million. To put that in perspective, that would be the equivalent of more than 600,000 people entering the UK, or more than 800,000 arriving in Germany.

‘It’s getting too crowded,’ says farmer Martin Haab. ‘On the roads, on the trains, especially in the cities.’”

The national debate is reflected in Swiss education as well, where concerns have been growing over how to fund spaces for a rising number of foreign students in the country’s universities. The multi-lingual Swiss news site swissinfo.ch reports:

“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.”

Governments and institutions in Switzerland continue to strive for the right balance of policy for international students, whether via increased funding for higher education, increasing tuition differentials for international students, or even bilateral funding agreements with the students’ home countries.

Even so, February’s referendum vote was widely and strongly opposed by government, business, and academic leaders. Indeed, the higher education and research community issued a strongly worded manifesto in January of this year to oppose the referendum proposal. The manifesto, signed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences, and by university rectors and the presidents of Swiss institutions of higher education, asserted that, “The freedom of movement of individuals with the European Union is the best way for Switzerland to ensure excellence in education and research. A vote in favour of the popular initiative ‘Against Mass Immigration’ could jeopardise the success of scientific research in Switzerland.”

BBC analyst Imogen Foulkes reflected these concerns in her comments immediately after the vote results:

“This is the result the Swiss government and business leaders most feared: support for immigration quotas, by the tiniest of margins. In Switzerland the voters’ word is final, and the government will now have to inform the European Union that it wants to ‘renegotiate’ its bilateral agreement on free movement of people. But renegotiation is almost certainly not an option.”

The Swiss government now has three years to turn the referendum result into law but the immediate impacts of the vote are being felt already.

First, the referendum result invalidates a Swiss-European Union agreement with respect to freedom of movement. As University World News reports:

“Switzerland signed an agreement with the EU 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 EU has already warned that there can be no renegotiation of free movement, and that it will not accept any contingency arrangements for immigrants.”

Needless to say, Switzerland, with its four language groups (German, French, Italian, and Rhaetian) and large immigrant population, has strong ties with the EU. Switzerland is not an EU member itself but over half of all Swiss exports are sold in the European Union and Swiss employers rely on being able to recruit qualified staff from across Europe.

This broad pattern is well reflected in Swiss academia as well, where nearly two thirds of the country’s university professors are from abroad. This high level of internationalisation in Swiss education makes the second immediate impact of the February referendum all the more alarming: in the weeks following the Swiss vote, the EU suspended negotiations with Switzerland for the country’s participation in its massive mobility and research programmes, Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020.

As ICEF Monitor reported, the two programmes were the subject of a €93 billion funding commitment by the EU in December 2013.

“Horizon 2020 is the largest-ever EU research programme, and one of the largest publicly funded research efforts in the world… Erasmus+ is a new programme for education, training, youth, and sport. It will provide funding for more than 4 million people to study, train, work, or volunteer abroad.”

The move to relegate Switzerland to third-country status with respect to Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 will likely result in the loss of access to significant programme funding for Swiss institutions.

University World News reports on the growing concerns of students and academic leaders in the country:

“On 13 February the European Students’ Union, or ESU, together with the national union of students in Switzerland, called for education and research to be protected from the results of the poll and for the country to continue collaboration in developing a European Higher Education Area.

‘Switzerland is on a slippery slope of isolating its students and academics from the outside world. This could have devastating effects that would be difficult to reverse,’ said Elisabeth Gehrke, vice-chair of the ESU.

The concerns of higher education leaders, academics and students appear to have been trumped by a ‘guillotine clause’ in agreements between the EU and Switzerland that makes all of them conditional on the free movement of people.”

It is this so-called guillotine clause which now raises the prospect as to whether Switzerland’s existing bilateral agreements with the EU could be cancelled as a result of the referendum vote. Much will depend on the legislation arising from the vote, and the Swiss government aims to have a draft bill ready by the end of 2014.

It is possible as well that other political actors in Switzerland, the Swiss Social Democrat party in particular, may call for a second referendum if the country’s agreements with the EU are cancelled – in effect, inviting the Swiss people to vote on whether they want to implement the results of the previous referendum or retain the country’s current bilateral relationship with the EU.

Much depends on how the forthcoming Swiss legislation takes shape and observers in Switzerland and across Europe are keenly watching for further developments.



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