Sunday, November 16, 2008

A referendum on the autonomy of the University of Geneva

Geneva - 12 November 2008

A referendum at the end of the month will determine the future of legislation designed to give the University of Geneva more autonomy. Administrators say the new law is needed to modernize the institution, which turns 450 next year, while they allay fears from employee and student groups that it will lead to a loss of independence, privatization of operations and tuition fee increases.

The fate of a new law to give the state-owned University of Geneva more autonomy will be determined by cantonal voters at the end of the month. The proposed legislation – to replace the oldest law of its kind in Switzerland, dating from 1974 – has been challenged by student and staff groups. They fear it will lead to a hike in tuition fees and privatization of operations, while worsening conditions for employees and threatening the university’s independence. But the Geneva government and the university administration say these concerns are unfounded.
Jean-Dominique Vassalli, the university’s rector, has led a media campaign for the past several weeks to explain why the new law is needed to modernize the institution and help if function more efficiently as its heads into its 450th anniversary next year. Founded by celebrated protestant theologian Jean Calvin in the 16th century, the university needs to be able to respond more flexibly to global conditions, by attracting the best possible academics and offering appropriate courses on a timely basis, Vassalli argues. The impetus for the legislation followed a scandal in 2006, involving the misappropriation of expenses by a professor, which led to the resignation of the previous rector. The new law calls for a clearer delineation of responsibilities while also providing university administrators more freedom to make decisions without having to seek parliamentary backing for such decisions as new curricula.

The recently launched master’s degree programme in international trading, for example, took 18 months to set up because of the cumbersome approval process involving the Geneva parliament. The English-language programme, sought by companies in Geneva’s booming trading sector needing highly trained staff, could have been more quickly established under the new law, university administrators say. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the Geneva chamber of commerce and right-wing political parties have lined up in support of the legislation.

Vassalli stresses that the bulk of the university’s budget – 627 million francs this year – will continue to be provided by the cantonal and federal governments. It currently receives grants of about 75 million francs from private and public research foundations, but it has far less private funding than, for example, American universities, where corporate funding is rampant and fees are considerably higher.

The Geneva parliament will continue to establish the university’s budget under the new law, and it will remain responsible for setting tuition fees, although the legislation would allow for increases in line with the Swiss average. At 1,000 francs a year, students at the University of Geneva currently benefit from the lowest tuition in the country.

Among other things, the law calls for the establishment of a 45-member university assembly, representing academic staff, charged with setting strategic goals and an ethical charter for the university. This would replace a smaller 21-member council that includes seven representatives from outside the university. Another aspect of the law would see the university become the direct employer of its staff, rather than the canton. Paolo Gilardi, leader of the public service employees’ union, believes this would lead to worse conditions for employees, while favoring the hiring of temporary employees.

Gilardi says a proposed lifting of the cap on professors’ salaries – currently held at around 200,000 francs a year – would increase the disparities between select “mandarins” and poorly paid teaching assistants. The law would allow for wages up to 300,000 francs, an amount Vassalli says is necessary to attract the top talent. Three weeks ago “two professors of medicine, including one who works in Basel, refused posts in Geneva for pay reasons,” he told the Tribune de Genève. “Compared to other Swiss universities we are not competitive,” Vassalli added.

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