Switzerland ‘must make it easier’ for refugees to go to university

The Swiss Students’ Union (VSS) is calling on the federal and cantonal authorities to change the rules to make it easier for refugees to access the Swiss university system.

Switzerland 'must make it easier' for refugees to go to university
File photo: Alain Herzog
“The right to education is a human right,” Gabriela Lüthi, a director of VSS, told the media in a press conference. “That’s why study should be available to everyone who has the interest and the capabilities”.
Many refugees have pursued or finished tertiary studies in their home country before arriving in Switzerland but slip through the net when they arrive here, said project coordinator Martina von Arx.
Their foreign qualifications do not qualify them to access the Swiss job market; rather, they must pursue a recognized Swiss university course or training, she said.
However currently numerous obstacles make it difficult for young refugees to study in Switzerland. 
Universities demand that refugees speak the local language to C1 level, even though Swiss students from a different linguistic region are only required to speak the local language to the lower B1 or B2 level, said VSS in a press conference. 
Often, refugees’ linguistic knowledge is not taken account when they are allocated to a canton, added von Arx – meaning a French speaker could be sent to live in a German-speaking canton. 
“That leads to problems that could have been avoided. It is crucial to change that,” she said.
What’s more, social services will only fund refugees for language courses up to A2 or B1 level, and most refugees do not have the money to fund further study.
That also applies to the Swiss university entrance exam, added the VSS. If a person without the Swiss maturité (the high school diploma) wants to study here they must either have a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree that is recognised in Switzerland or they must pass an entrance exam equivalent to the Swiss high school diploma.
Until 2011 preparatory courses for this entrance examination were paid for by a foundation. Since its dissolution students must now take private courses which can cost up to 20,000 francs for a year’s study, a sum impossible for most refugees – and many other foreign students – to pay. 
VSS is calling for publicly-funded courses to be reintroduced, saying that economics should not dictate access to education.
“Using this type of selection process in a society that needs qualified personnel and wants above all to promote lasting integration makes no sense,” said VSS project coordinator Martina von Arx.
The organization is also calling for grants to be made available for refugees to cover the costs of living whilst studying – and that those grants should be available not just to recognized refugees but to those who have provisional refugee status. 
“If our integration system isn’t prepared to support refugees having already studied or having an interest in studying, we are wasting potential and missing a chance to train much needed qualified workers,” she added. 
The organization’s stance was welcomed by Swiss universities, with Michael Hengartner, the rector of Zurich University and president of Swissuniversities, saying higher education institutions were currently offering different measures for potential refugee students.
Indeed, since 2015 universities have agreed in principle to accept refugees and several are offering schemes where refugees can sit in on classes, for free.
The University of Geneva’s ‘Horizon Academique’ scheme welcomed 35 refugee students in this way last September.
But this does not go far enough, feels VSS.
“These projects are good and especially promote linguistic education,” Lüthi told the media. “But they are not enough”.

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How Europe’s population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

The populations of countries across Europe are changing, with some increasing whilst others are falling. Populations are also ageing meaning the EU is having to react to changing demographics.

How Europe's population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

After decades of growth, the population of the European Union decreased over the past two years mostly due to the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest data from the EU statistical office Eurostat show that the EU population was 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, 172,000 fewer than the previous year. On 1 January 2020, the EU had a population of 447.3 million.

This trend is because, in 2020 and 2021 the two years marked by the crippling pandemic, there have been more deaths than births and the negative natural change has been more significant than the positive net migration.

But there are major differences across countries. For example, in numerical terms, Italy is the country where the population has decreased the most, while France has recorded the largest increase.

What is happening and how is the EU reacting?

In which countries is the population growing?

In 2021, there were almost 4.1 million births and 5.3 million deaths in the EU, so the natural change was negative by 1.2 million (more broadly, there were 113,000 more deaths in 2021 than in 2020 and 531,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, while the number of births remained almost the same).

Net migration, the number of people arriving in the EU minus those leaving, was 1.1 million, not enough to compensate.

A population growth, however, was recorded in 17 countries. Nine (Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, France, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands and Sweden) had both a natural increase and positive net migration.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Five things to know about Germany’s foreign population

In eight EU countries (the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia, Spain, Lithuania, Austria, Portugal and Finland), the population increased because of positive net migration, while the natural change was negative.

The largest increase in absolute terms was in France (+185,900). The highest natural increase was in Ireland (5.0 per 1,000 persons), while the biggest growth rate relative to the existing population was recorded in Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta (all above 8.0 per 1,000 persons).

In total, 22 EU Member States had positive net migration, with Luxembourg (13.2 per 1 000 persons), Lithuania (12.4) and Portugal (9.6) topping the list.

Births and deaths in the EU from 1961 to 2021 (Eurostat)

Where is the population declining?

On the other hand, 18 EU countries had negative rates of natural change, with deaths outnumbering births in 2021.

Ten of these recorded a population decline. In Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia population declined due to a negative natural change, while net migration was slightly positive.

In Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia, the decrease was both by negative natural change and negative net migration.

READ ALSO: Italian class sizes set to shrink as population falls further

The largest fall in population was reported in Italy, which lost over a quarter of a million (-253,100).

The most significant negative natural change was in Bulgaria (-13.1 per 1,000 persons), Latvia (-9.1), Lithuania (-8.7) and Romania (-8.2). On a proportional basis, Croatia and Bulgaria recorded the biggest population decline (-33.1 per 1,000 persons).

How is the EU responding to demographic change?

From 354.5 million in 1960, the EU population grew to 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, an increase of 92.3 million. If the growth was about 3 million persons per year in the 1960s, it slowed to about 0.7 million per year on average between 2005 and 2022, according to Eurostat.

The natural change was positive until 2011 and turned negative in 2012 when net migration became the key factor for population growth. However, in 2020 and 2021, this no longer compensated for natural change and led to a decline.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Over time, says Eurostat, the negative natural change is expected to continue given the ageing of the population if the fertility rate (total number of children born to each woman) remains low.

This poses questions for the future of the labour market and social security services, such as pensions and healthcare.

The European Commission estimates that by 2070, 30.3 per cent of the EU population will be 65 or over compared to 20.3 per cent in 2019, and 13.2 per cent is projected to be 80 or older compared to 5.8 per cent in 2019.

The number of people needing long-term care is expected to increase from 19.5 million in 2016 to 23.6 million in 2030 and 30.5 million in 2050.

READ ALSO: How foreigners are changing Switzerland

However, demographic change impacts different countries and often regions within the same country differently.

When she took on the Presidency of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen appointed Dubravka Šuica, a Croatian politician, as Commissioner for Democracy and Demography to deal with these changes.

Among measures in the discussion, in January 2021, the Commission launched a debate on Europe’s ageing society, suggesting steps for higher labour market participation, including more equality between women and men and longer working lives.

In April, the Commission proposed measures to make Europe more attractive for foreign workers, including simplifying rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the EU. These will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council.

In the fourth quarter of this year, the Commission also plans to present a communication on dealing with ‘brain drain’ and mitigate the challenges associated with population decline in regions with low birth rates and high net emigration.

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.