3 Textbook examples

The Erasmus monument

Switzerland’s exclusion from European programmes has very concrete consequences for research and education. Here are a few examples.

By Bertrand Beauté

Erasmus+: an interrupted exchange

On 9 February 2024, a handful of students meet at the Federal Palace of Switzerland. The goal is to make their voices heard, on a day that marks a sad anniversary. On that day 10 years ago, Switzerland was no longer part of the Erasmus+ programme. For many, the name of the Dutch monk Erasmus is now entirely associated with foreign exchange semesters for European students to spend studying at exotic universities between parties. "The programme is a victim of a stereotype from the film The Spanish Apartment," said Olivier Tschopp, director of Movetia, the Swiss national agency for exchanges and mobility. "But Erasmus+ is much more than that. Firstly, it is not limited to only university students. Erasmus+ offers exchanges at all levels of higher education. Secondly, it’s not just a mobility programme; it’s an education programme for life, which also includes offers of cooperation."

Switzerland left the programme in 2014 in order to create a parallel system established by a new agency called Movetia. "At the time, Switzerland thought that it could do without Erasmus+. Now, the numbers show that we were wrong," said Luciana Vaccaro, president of swissuniversities. "The Federal Council aimed to have 20% of students studying abroad. Ten years later, we’re only at 15%." Comparatively, the mobility rate in Austria – a country similar to Switzerland – is 24%. 

"If we stayed in Erasmus+, our mobility rate would be higher," said Tschopp. Why is that? Exchanges are now dependent on the agreements that each Swiss Haute école makes with its foreign counterparts, which quickly becomes tedious: "To use a metaphor, it would be like travelling on the Swiss train network and buying a ticket for each trip, rather than buying one pass to go everywhere," said Tschopp. "Countries in the Erasmus programme pay once and have easy access to all destinations."

And in terms of cooperation, Swiss students and establishments do not benefit from the same tools and opportunities (technical platforms, user networks, alliances between establishments) that their European counterparts do. "It becomes very difficult to start any type of cooperation project between Swiss universities and European universities, and there are serious administrative limitations, which has an impact on what institutions can offer and therefore the quality of education," said Tschopp. "It’s even more unfortunate because a good education, with international exposure, is the baseline for good research. It is in our best interest to rejoin Erasmus+."

A cold shock for fusion

"Incredibly disappointing to no longer be able to collaborate with our European colleagues." This is how Dr Yves Martin, deputy director of the Swiss Plasma Center (SPC) at EPFL, described the exclusion of Switzerland from European research programmes in 2021. At the time, more than 50% of financing for the Swiss Plasma Center came from European funds. Three years later, the situation continues with mixed results.

"Regarding Eurofusion (ed. note: the organisation that oversees European research on nuclear fusion), we were able to find a solution quickly," said the researcher. "We became affiliated partners, which meant that we could still propose projects to Eurofusion, just like we did previously. If the projects are accepted, we complete them and send the bill to Bern to pay. Everything operates just as it did before, with a slightly higher administrative fee, except that we no longer receive money from the European Union." 

The cooperation is so close that professor Ambrogio Fasoli, director of the Swiss Plasma Center, became the new director of the Eurofusion programme on 1 January 2024. As for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) programme – the world’s largest scientific project towards nuclear fusion energy – Switzerland’s situation is less than ideal. "We were excluded from the ITER programme and we still are to this day," said Martin. "The contracts that were in place in 2021 were completed, but we can no longer propose any new projects. We don’t even receive calls for proposals any more. It’s truly problematic."

There is one bright spot, however: "ITER needs us, needs our expertise," said Martin. "With no false modesty, we are among the best in the world in nuclear fusion." EPFL has a considerable advantage up its sleeve: the variable configuration tokamak (TCV). "This machine can create and study plasmas in any form, a flexibility that can be found virtually nowhere else," said Dr Martin. As a result, since 2022, the Swiss Plasma Center can once again be considered for certain projects associated with ITER. "But Swiss industry remains completely excluded from the ITER programme," said the researcher. For example, the company VAT Group, listed on the Swiss exchange, supplied gates to the ITER programme before Switzerland was excluded. They no longer do so.

The quantum battle

"The potential for applications of quantum physics is astronomical. It would be devastating if Switzerland misses this technological shift," warned Nicolas Gisin, honorary professor at the University of Geneva and Constructor University in Bremen, and co‑founder of ID Quantique. "Right now, every country is investing heavily to be at the cutting edge of this field." In 2018, the United States launched the National Quantum Initiative, with a budget of approximately $1 billion per year ($968 million projected for 2024). China invested $10 billion into its national quantum laboratory. The European Union has Quantum Flagship, a programme that began in 2018 with €1 billion allocated over 10 years, or €100 million per year. This is in addition to the investments each European country is making on their own (in 2021, Germany announced a €400 million investment yearly until 2025, and France invested €200 million).

And where is Switzerland in all this? In May 2022, the Federal Council announced the Swiss Quantum Initiative, with a budget of 5 million Swiss francs yearly for 2023 and 2024. "The amounts invested by each country are not comparable, because they don’t take into account the same things," said Gisin, president of the Swiss Quantum Initiative. "But no matter how you calculate it, our investment is ridiculously low compared to other countries. It’s a bit pathetic. Switzerland needs to wake up, because the time to act is now."

In this context, the exclusion of Switzerland from European programmes is significantly affecting Swiss competitiveness in this field. "Basic research wasn’t impacted too much because the SNSF compensated for the financial aspect," said Gisin. "But applied research and industry were significantly affected. Startups can no longer receive EU subsidies to finance their R&D and the companies that are already selling products are seriously hindered, because the EU is considering reserving access to the quantum market to European suppliers only."

As a result, the Geneva‑based startup ID Quantique announced in February 2022 that it was opening a branch in Vienna, Austria in order to continue to participate in the Quantum Flagship programme. "Of course it’s very important that Switzerland rejoins Horizon Europe, but it’s even more important that it is also included in the Quantum Flagship programme and that our companies active in quantum technologies have full access to the entire European market. Our Swiss politicians who negotiate with Brussels need to know that: the problem is much larger than just Horizon Europe."