Defend your Values

(March 18th, 2014) Swiss university officials complain about their exclusion from Erasmus and Horizon 2020 after the Swiss vote to control immigration. They have woken up too late. Now they should learn their lesson, says Florian Fisch.

After Swiss citizens voted to control immigration, the European Commission responded by excluding students in Switzerland from the Erasmus+ exchange programme and researchers from applying for ERC grants. This is, no doubt, a hard blow to Swiss universities: their international reputation has already suffered by the vote and now a state of harmful uncertainty about future developments in international collaboration is creeping in.

In interviews and press conferences, Swiss university officials lick their wounds. "A catastrophe," judged Roland Siegwart, Antonio Loprieno and Martin Vetterli, the vice president of the ETH Zurich, the rector of the University of Basel and the president of the research council of the Swiss National Foundation, respectively. Vetterli compared it to holding Olympic Games for Swiss athletes only. It would be "like the FC Basel not being able to compete in the Champions League," said the president of the ETH Zurich, Ralph Eichler. The Director of the Materials Research Institute Empa, Gian-Luca Bona, was worried about losing scientists as they would be "sensitive like rock stars or top athletes."

Now they write letters to the government asking universities to be protected from the consequences: "Switzerland, a formerly successful centre for education, research and innovation would be isolated in Europe." The Swiss Students’ Organisation launched a petition "Not without Switzerland" to "ensure Swiss higher education's participation in these programmes" saying that "internationality of academia is threatened by current politics".

If the situation is so bad, why did these officials not campaign more actively against the initiative before the vote? The only visible campaign from universities was a "Manifesto for Switzerland as an open centre for research and education" published barely three weeks before the initiative - at a time when the main arguments had long been laid out. The tone of the manifesto is very academic and thus unable to reach out to those more concerned by overcrowded trains, immigrants pushing down salaries and covering the rural countryside with concrete for building new homes.

When confronted, researchers claim that they are not trained for political campaigning. They need not be. Hiding behind academic arguments, while heated debates are unfolding and propaganda operates with dodgy statistics, certainly is not of big help. Scientists have to defend the core values of their profession in the open arena.

What really happened was the opposite. The manifesto did not even appear on the universities' homepages. Instead it was hidden in the news sections, purely directed to the media. The presidents, rectors and directors should have given public talks and interviews, and participate in debates. They did not. Merely publishing the manifesto was already way outside their comfort zone.

Of course, universities are paid by taxpayers' money and are not expected to meddle with politics. Thus, their representatives should be cautious. There are people at universities who disagree and they should have the right to do this publicly. When core values of universities are at stake, like freedom of expression, independence of research and teaching or, in this case, the internationality of academic life, they should be expected to defend them - not least to fulfil the role society has assigned to them - by law. Providing dry and silent academic arguments is simply inadequate.

This is not the first time academics in Switzerland fail to defend these values. When, not so long ago, a polemic started about the number of German professors at Swiss universities, the situation was similar. Also back then the response was weak and defensive. As if not considering nationality to be an important factor was something to be ashamed of. Similarly, academics remained mostly silent when the public and civil servants opposed to field trials with genetically modified wheat at the ETH in Zurich. The defence of independent research was neither engaged nor was it effective.

Sure, it gets difficult once academics leave their protected area and enter the dirty field of politics. But they cannot take their pampered environment for granted. To reach out and convince average Joe and plain Jane is not something that can be learnt in an auditorium between 9.15 and 10 o'clock, it has to be learnt by doing.

Florian Fisch

Photo: Kratochvil

Last Changes: 04.30.2014