This article is more than 6 years old

The post-Brexit lessons from Switzerland for UK HE and science

After years of turbulence in Switzerland, the country's relationship with EU research and mobility programmes outside the EU might point the way for the UK post-Brexit.
This article is more than 6 years old

Peter is Policy Manager, Europe (Research and Innovation) for UUKi.

Switzerland’s recent changing relationship with the EU research and mobility programmes gives the UK some interesting lessons about how our own programmes might interact with the EU post-Brexit.

Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but it does have unfettered access to the single market thanks to a set of bilateral treaties which include access to the framework programmes and Erasmus+. These agreements are bound by a so-called ‘guillotine’ clause, meaning if one is broken, they all fall.

Recent history

On 9 February 2014 a referendum (sound familiar?) was held on the motion to ‘limit mass immigration’ following pressure by populist politicians (sound familiar?). The motion was carried by a narrow majority of 50.3% (still sounding familiar?) which, it’s fair to say, took the Swiss government and university system somewhat by surprise (more familiarity?). As this wasn’t a government proposal, no contingency plans had been put in place for this result (yes, still familiar).

Unfortunately for Swiss-EU relations, the first opportunity for the government to implement the outcome was by refusing to sign a treaty protocol expanding freedom of movement to include Croatian citizens, who joined the EU in 2013.

The EU response to Switzerland’s suppression of one of the Union’s four treasured ‘freedoms’ was swift and strong; the ‘guillotine’ clause was invoked, and Switzerland’s involvement in research and mobility programmes were the first victims. At that time, Switzerland was still waiting to sign association agreements for Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+, but negotiations on both were unilaterally ended by the EU, leaving Swiss researchers and students high and dry.


To replace access to Erasmus+, the government created the Swiss-European Mobility Programme (SEMP), which mirrored the EU programme but only covered the mobility elements of Erasmus+. The key difference was that the Swiss government had to fund both outgoing and incoming mobility for both staff and students and they were unable to offer internships or traineeships for students in the private sector.

SEMP does not replace the important Key Action Two strand of Erasmus+, which funds higher education reform and capacity-building projects in developing countries as well as knowledge alliances and strategic partnerships for higher education. Despite this, the programme has been effective at maintaining a steady flow of inbound and outbound students and staff. It remains in place to this day.

It is interesting to note, however, that even though the programme is experiencing relative success across the sector, the preferred option for the Swiss would still be to regain association to the Erasmus+ programme, either now or in time for the successor programme in 2021.

Research and innovation

When Swiss researchers were relegated to third country participants in Horizon 2020, they were cut off from the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) and were unable to receive EU funding for participation in collaborative research projects. This was a massive blow to the Swiss HE sector, whose researchers had previously been among the most successful in the previous framework programme and were oblivious to the possibility that their associate status in Horizon 2020 was at risk.

Swiss policymakers acted quickly to address the destabilising effect of this exclusion, starting by establishing a ‘Temporary Backup Scheme’ to replace access to ERC grants. This involved replicating the entire ERC process for the 2014 starter and consolidator grant calls, with awards funded out of the budget for Horizon 2020 that had already been approved by the Swiss Parliament. A mechanism was also set up to provide public funding for third country participation in collaborative projects in the ‘Societal Challenges’ pillar of Horizon 2020, again relying on the pre-approved budget.

This stop-gap solution lasted for several months before the Swiss government and European Commission managed to agree a ‘partial association’ agreement in September 2014. This restored full access to certain parts of Horizon 2020 (most notably the ERC) while other streams remained accessible only on a third country basis.

The agreement was time-limited, setting a deadline of 9th February 2017 (three years on from the referendum) for Switzerland to sign the Croatian protocol. Two years later, the Parliament, wary of the detrimental impact this had had on the research sector, approved a weak compromise giving unemployed Swiss citizens marginally preferential access to vacancies over EU nationals by way of implementing the referendum decision. This enabled them to sign the protocol, restoring full associate access to Horizon 2020.

Not quite a happy ending

There is still no agreement over future Swiss involvement in Erasmus+, as the Commission has significantly increased their bill for participation, meaning that SEMP remains in place. Moreover, Swiss observers note that the immigration question is by no means resolved; the quick fix that was found last year will at some point need to be translated into a more substantial constitutional provision, which may well reignite the debate.

For the time being, Swiss universities are happy to be back in the EU research fold.

A cautionary tale?

While there are parallels that can be drawn between Brexit and what happened in Switzerland, there are also important differences. Most obviously, the context for this chain of events was disagreement over a specific policy issue, which is clearly in a different order of magnitude to the expansive question of how to withdraw as a member the EU. The relative importance of Swiss research to the framework programmes compared to the UK is also worth noting: British researchers take home a much larger slice of EU research funding than their Swiss counterparts. This is also true for the Erasmus+ programme and their financial ability to incorporate all mobility under a national budget.

Overall, Swiss mobility (staff and students inbound and outbound) totals just under 11,000 with UK mobility reaching almost 50,000 for higher education alone.

However, there are lessons for the UK from Switzerland’s recent turbulence. Most importantly, the value of participation in EU research and mobility programmes is clearly hard to replicate at a national level. Although the Swiss ERC replacement scheme was functional, it lacked prestige and was not seen as a sustainable long-term substitute. Moreover, the damaging impact of the uncertainty created through the process was clear, with a significant drop-off in the number of Swiss participations in Horizon 2020 compared to the previous framework programme, particularly in collaborative projects.

More positively, the resolution to the dispute does suggest that, when it comes to higher education and research in the EU, where there’s a will, there’s a way. But a great deal of turbulence and uncertainty can be avoided if the UK and EU negotiators prioritise finding a deal that would maintain British participation in Horizon 2020, Erasmus+ and their successor programmes.

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