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Swiss students can go back to university – partially

A lecturer giving an online lecture to students of the Eastern Switzerland University of Applied Sciences in November last year Keystone / Gian Ehrenzeller

Face to face teaching - currently on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic – will soon be possible at universities following recent government approval. But there will be restrictions.

This content was published on April 15, 2021 - 15:30

Calls had been mounting, most notably from the Swiss Student Union last week, for a return to campus after almost a year of online learning. 

The government seems to have listened. On Wednesday it announcedExternal link that face to face teaching would be allowed on a limited basis, from April 19, as part of a package of wider coronavirus easing measures. The conditions: no more than 50 people in a class and rooms should not be filled beyond a third of capacity. Mask wearing and hygiene measures still apply.

The Swiss Student UnionExternal link welcomed the news - and the fact that its concerns over students’ studies, finances and mental health suffering during the pandemic had been heard.

“It’s important that universities now offer wide-ranging hybrid [online-campus] learning opportunities so that everyone – also those who must or want to be careful – can take part,” said union co-president Elischa Link.

But he cautioned that finances would continue to be an issue for students as it would be a long time before enough part-time jobs in the catering sector reappeared.

swissuniversitiesExternal link, the sector’s umbrella body, said it was pleased that exchange between student and lecturers, which was so important to university learning, “has moved a step closer,” its secretary general Martina Weiss told SWI swissinfo.ch via email.

But it felt that the restrictions on class size were not really necessary, arguing that universities already had good protection measures in place (they were briefly allowed to open in autumn before the second coronavirus wave hit) to carry out teaching safely.

In practice

How the changes at universities might work in practice became clear during the University of Zurich’s annual press conference on Thursday. Rector Michael Schaepman said that one priority was to get students, who may have gaps in their learning due to the practical nature of their studies, back on site. “I’m thinking here of medical studies and laboratory work for chemistry and biology,” he told reporters at the online event.

A decision on the university’s next steps will be taken at a meeting next Tuesday. Schaepman said that a return to labs could be implemented very quickly but added that students also needed to be able to plan (something the student union has also pointed out in its list of concerns).

“We don’t want to change from week to week, saying that exams will be online or perhaps on campus. The students need a perspective on how they can successfully finish the semester,” he said.

Schaepman said a likely scenario could be that some students would finish the semester on campus, some would be in hybrid online-campus mode, and others would remain exclusively online.

University of Zurich – future plans

The university also announcedExternal link on Thursday that it would, post-pandemic, aim to harness the digital advances and the experience gained from the past year to provide a targeted mix of classroom and online formats in the future. 

“We want to use the experience we’ve gained and the great potential for innovation and digital transformation to further develop high-quality teaching beyond the emergency mode,” said rector Michael Schaepman at the annual media conference. The university believes that a hybrid approach could allow a more individualised approach to learning.

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Online approach

For its part, the University of GenevaExternal link said that it would keep to distance learning until the end of the spring semester on May 28, as it had previously announcedExternal link.

This was to give stability to students and lecturers during what has been a very uncertain time, the university told SWI swissinfo.ch. Also, many students were currently at home and it did not make sense for them to return to Geneva.

The restrictions announced also posed “very big logistical problems” for a university with 19,000 students and buildings dotted around the city and canton, it added in an emailed statement. There could however be a few exceptions for small or practical seminars.

The university said that face to face teaching remained key in higher education and it hoped for a return to this as soon as the health situation permitted. “The speeding up of the vaccination campaign, in which [the university] encourages its members to participate, is certainly one of the keys to this. The University of Geneva hopes that this campaign can be opened rapidly to students,” it said.

Many other universities have since confirmed that they will either go back to some on-site learning within the next few weeks or that they will remain online for the rest of the semester.

Switzerland has not been alone in keeping its university campuses shut during the pandemic. Universities in neighbouring France, Germany and Italy are also closed for in-person teaching. University students in England will be allowed to return to face-to-face teaching from May 17 "at the earliest".

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