By Gordon Millar, Barbara Stettler, and Xaver Büeler

Until recently, Swiss universities have focused on European student mobility. The European Union’s non-EU member status has allowed Swiss universities to participate in EU educational exchange and international project-funding programs during two periods, each followed by a period of looser shadowing arrangements. Shadowing has meant setting up mirror-program arrangements funded solely by the Swiss for the benefit of domestic and EU participants. The loss of program status was in both cases due to the outcome of a national vote, in 1992 against entry to the European Economic Area and in 2014 in favor of restricting immigration by reintroducing a quota system. Swiss student mobility with Erasmus+ countries has experienced slower growth and greater fluctuation in the wake of these political events. The practically-oriented universities of applied science, focusing on a wide variety of disciplines, from business to music to healthcare, have in particular struggled to expand their mobility programs (Movetia 2020). Problems with student mobility in Europe may have fueled the significant growth and interest in mobility with non-European countries seen in recent years. This article looks at these mobility trends.

Swiss Trends in Global Exchange

What is the background to recent interest in Swiss student mobility beyond Europe? Using exports as a proxy for the strength of Switzerland’s economic relationships with the rest of the world, in the 10 years leading up to 2018, there was a marked growth in sales to Asia and North America, as contrasted with little or no growth in exports to Europe (Swiss Federal Customs Administration 2019, 21). Since 2014, Switzerland has, for example, had a free-trade agreement with China, one of its top-five trading partners (SECO n.d.).

Evidence of Switzerland’s engagement with higher education beyond Europe is also readily found. Between the late 1950s and the 1990s, Switzerland built up a worldwide network of science attachés. Starting in Boston in 2000 with the foundation of Swiss House for Advanced Research and Education (SHARE), the swissnex Network developed. The idea is to provide a space in which local and Swiss researchers and entrepreneurs can come together in the spirit of “the openness and modernity of Switzerland” (swissnex Network n.d.). The network’s mission includes “promoting the visibility of Swiss higher education and research institutions” (swissnex Network n.d.). Its governance is based on public and private partnerships. The list of locations reflects larger trends. In addition to Boston, swissnex can be found in Bangalore, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, and Shanghai, all modeled after the original “leading research and innovation cluster” in Boston (swissnex Network n.d.). There is no European location. Of course, it could be argued that Switzerland’s educational and business relationships are sufficiently developed in Europe so as not to require the presence of swissnex.1 Whatever the reason for its geographic distribution, swissnex exemplifies the belief that leading innovation hubs and opportunities for partnerships can be found both within and outside Europe.

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich), Switzerland’s leading research university, provides another significant example of engagement beyond Europe. In 2010, ETH Zurich established its only research center outside Switzerland at the Singapore National Research Foundation’s Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE) (ETH Zurich n.d.). The university sees its Singapore center as having “strengthened the research capacity of ETH Zurich to develop sustainable solutions to global challenges in Switzerland, Singapore and the surrounding regions” (ETH Zurich n.d.). Research at the center has been focused on its Future Cities Laboratory and the Future Resilient [Infrastructure] Systems program. These programs involve ETH Zurich in research collaborations with non-European universities, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the National University of Singapore (NUS), which are also represented in CREATE (ETH Zurich n.d.).

Outbound Mobility

Anecdotal evidence suggests that Switzerland’s business and educational relationships outside Europe are increasingly reflected in the pattern of student exchange mobility. However, relevant statistics analogous to those collected for Erasmus+ mobility have not readily been available. To fill this gap, a survey of non-European mobility was carried out in the years immediately following Switzerland’s exclusion from Erasmus+ in 2014. From the patchy pattern of the responses and the imprecise division between non-European and European (where to put mobility with Russian universities, for example), it is clear that at a time of turbulence in Swiss universities’ mobility relationships with their European partners, there was a growing trend toward non-European mobility (see table 1 below). The growth in 2015–16 as compared with 2012–13 is particularly remarkable. Across the years surveyed, the most popular destination countries, which accounted for the largest rates of mobility, always included Canada, the United States, Australia, China, Singapore, and Japan among the top 10, and in that order in 2015–16. This suggests that at least part of the growth occurred with already existing partnerships.

Table 1. Survey of Outgoing Student Mobility (Excluding Internships) in the Academic Year 2012–13 Compared with 2013–14 and 2015–16*

Type of University Outbound Destinations (by number of students)
  Non-European European
  2012–2013 2013–2014 2015–2016 2012–2013 2013–2014 2015–2016
Traditional Universities (ETH Zurich, Università della Svizzera Italiana, University of Bern, University of Geneva, University of Lausanne, University of Lucerne, University of Neuchâtel, University of Zurich) 587 619 725 1,186 1,122 1,279
Universities of Applied Sciences (Bern University of Applied Sciences, Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Zurich University of the Arts) 79 90 117 227 232 218
Universities of Teacher Education (Bern University of Teacher Education, Zurich University of Teacher Education) 25 19 26 89 100 83
Total 691 728 868 1,502 1,454 1,580
Increase/Decrease   5.4% 19.2%   -3.2% 8.7%

*Survey data held by the authors and available on request.

It is worth bearing in mind the circumstances under which these developments have taken place. Unlike mobility within the Erasmus+ networks, students participating in non-European mobility from Switzerland in most cases receive no monthly stipend and no automatic tuition fee waiver. Swiss students opting for a mobility experience outside Europe are seemingly willing to pay more for the perceived benefits. These benefits include the opportunity to mix study with work or an internship in an English-speaking environment or the boost to a student’s résumé provided by an academic experience in one of the world’s global hubs, such as Hong Kong or Tokyo.

Inbound Mobility

Specific numbers for incoming non-European students studying in Switzerland are not available, as far as is known. Figures for degree-seeking students suggest that the proportion of those with a non-Swiss educational background has increased more significantly at the traditional universities than at the universities of applied science, reaching 25.5 percent as compared with 12.5 percent in 2018–19 (Federal Statistical Office n.d.).

Hindrances remain, however, and include non-English-speaking students’ language barriers to completing coursework in English, the perceived or real higher cost of living, and the complexities of applying for student residence in an immigration bureaucracy that, in some cantons, does not recognize English as a working language. In addition, Swiss higher education institutions do not focus on the short-term models of international exchange preferred by many students in Australia, Canada, and the United States. For all these reasons, it is unlikely that Swiss institutions will reach an equivalent number of inbound students. Growth has therefore been taking place in a context marked by arrangements other than reciprocal exchange agreements. Some of these arrangements include research collaborations and nonreciprocal, fee-paying education abroad pathways. Such mobility relationships are more commercially driven than their European counterparts in the sense that they are often made possible using research funding or tuition fees. The development of dual-degree programs will only reinforce this trend (Durrani 2016).

The Future of Swiss Educational Mobility

In interviews conducted with representatives of the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) and the national educational mobility and exchange agency Movetia, it was clear that the trend toward educational mobility beyond Europe has been recognized. Neither entity foresaw a complete opening of the Swiss European Mobility Program to worldwide coverage, but the State Secretariat was in favor of considering public support for cooperation in other priority countries—the United States, the BRICS countries, and Mexico were mentioned in a 2017 interview with the State Secretariat. The fruits of these developments have been realized in formal policy documents. In 2017, pilot project funding to explore support for non-European mobility was announced (Swiss Federal Council 2017, pp. 18–20). This, in turn, led to a call for project submissions by Movetia in early 2018. The support, which is offered until the end of 2020, is limited to 60 percent of the requirements of any one project. It is clear that the model for cooperation beyond Europe is one of public support for bilateral institutional relationships, or consortia, and not for student exchanges to universities with which a student’s home institution does not partner, so-called “free-movers” (Swiss Confederation 2018).

Finally, the relationship with higher education institutions in the United Kingdom has moved to center stage in the context of “Brexit.” The press has drawn attention to Swiss interest in research cooperation between the two European Union “outsiders” (Donzé 2019). The State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation is working on a revision of the law covering international education cooperation, in part because of Brexit, so as to create “scope for funding mobility with countries that are not associated to the EU education programmes” (SERI 2020, 2).

The pilot projects permitted by the changes to the regulations for 2018–20 are welcome steps to those interested in activities beyond Europe, but they do not specifically address the problems of achieving reciprocity, especially with partner universities in emerging countries. It appears that the traditional universities and universities of applied science will have to be active in this respect. Some Swiss institutions charge differential tuition fees for degree-seeking international students. The University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland (n.d.), for example, charges international students CHF 5,000 per semester instead of the CHF 700 payable by local students. It would be possible to pay some of this income into a scholarship fund for incoming international exchange students. For example, the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts has set up a fund which, among other aims, intends to provide scholarships for those individuals, including international students, applying from “socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds” (Hochschule Luzern n.d.).

Students at traditional Swiss universities and universities of applied science have shown increased interest over a number of years in mobility beyond Europe. It is worth noting that this is apparently part of a wider European trend. More Danish higher education students who study abroad, for instance, do so beyond non-Scandinavian Europe (Jürgensen 2019).2 Additionally, Swiss institutions of higher education themselves, backed by the Swiss federal government in its support for swissnex, for example, have shown a parallel interest in research cooperations beyond Europe. However, without more measures to encourage reciprocity, students from Switzerland will continue to have to buy into international experience beyond Europe, and true partnerships between Swiss institutions and their partners outside Europe will remain confined to research cooperation.

1 In 1995, the Swiss Confederation and the Swiss National Science Foundation established SwissCore, a Swiss contact office for European education, research, and innovation matters in Brussels. This plays a very similar role to the swissnex Network outside Europe.

2 In 2018, 48.99 percent of Danish higher education students studying abroad were doing so outside non-Scandinavian Europe. The most popular destinations were Asia (18.39 percent) and the United States/Canada (14.51 percent). By comparison, 42.71 percent were studying in Europe excluding Denmark’s Scandinavian neighbors.


Donzé, René. 2019. “Schweiz setzt in der Forschung auf die Briten statt auf die EU [Switzerland Is Counting on the British Rather than the EU in Research]. ” NZZamSonntag. February 23, 2019.

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Xaver Büeler was, until 2016, dean of the Lucerne School of Business and of international affairs for the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts as a whole. Until 2019, he was managing director of the university’s Endowment Foundation, which has, as a central aim, the funding of scholarships for international student experience.

Gordon Millar is a lecturer at the Lucerne School of Business. He works in international relations and was international relations coordinator for the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts as a whole between 2010 and 2013.

Barbara Stettler has been an administrator in international relations at the Lucerne School of Business since 2012. She has particular responsibility for running school’s international dual-degree program.