Participation in the European education and research programmes is of the utmost importance for Swiss higher education institutions. This is why swissuniversities has repeatedly emphasised that full association to Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ is vital for Swiss higher education institutions.
In the research programmes, higher education institutions can no longer realise projects as planned, Swiss researchers lose project leads, and projects and researchers relocate to EU countries. This will result in a shortfall of millions in the budgets of the higher education institutions, and also the loss of excellent researchers, who will move abroad or not come to Switzerland in the first place. The networks of Swiss higher education institutions are at risk of being severely damaged – also because cooperation with Swiss institutions is much less attractive for partners in the EU and the latter are therefore increasingly entering into other partnerships. In the Erasmus+ education programmes, Switzerland is not only excluded from the exchange programmes, but also from the development of a European digital education area. The consequence for higher education institutions is that partnerships have to be negotiated in a complicated bilateral procedure and administrative hurdles increase. All of this makes Switzerland less attractive for both partners and students.
As long as full association to Horizon Europe and Erasmus+ has not yet been achieved, everything possible must be done at national level to secure the financial resources earmarked for transitional, supplementary and replacement measures with a view to ensuring the attractiveness of Switzerland as a centre of research and innovation (despite the initial situation outlined above). In this sense, we thank the Science, Education and Culture Committee of the Council of States SECC-S for their initiative and commitment in favour of Swiss researchers, lecturers, and students and thus the Swiss higher education system, and we welcome the proposed path via the establishment of a fund foreseen for these means.
The Horizon Fund is intended to sustainably secure the funds already allocated to finance participation in the European research programmes. By their very nature, research projects are not subject to the strict principle of annuality that the Confederation's budgeting provides for. It must therefore be possible to ensure that all funds can be fully used for research, even if their spending is delayed. If there are any credit residues at the end of a budgetary year, it should be possible to carry them over to the following year without complications. Thus, they continue to be available to the higher education sector. They should not flow back into the general federal treasury by a certain deadline and consequently be withdrawn from research.
In this sense, the following points are of particular relevance to swissuniversities in the further design of the Horizon Fund and the specification of its mode of operation:
- The funds earmarked for Horizon must be considered independently of the Education, Research and Innovation ERI Dispatch 2025-28. The fund must not have any negative impact on the budgets of other ERI areas, particularly not on the determination of the basic contributions of the cantonal universities and universities of applied sciences.
- The funding institutions should have as much leeway as possible in designing the funding instruments so that they can be flexibly adapted to current needs and requirements. The Horizon Fund Act is not intended to create any costly new parallel structures. In Switzerland, there are funding institutions that have extensive expertise in the evaluation of projects and the allocation of research funds. Ideally, a solution should be found for evaluating and committing funds primarily through the SNSF and Innosuisse. The draft law provides for an important function for the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research EAER (or possibly the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation SERI) in the allocation of the funds. Firstly, the EAER or SERI would establish a priority order on the use of the funds allocated to the fund; secondly, the EAER or SERI would appoint "preferably internationally composed expert panels" to evaluate the applications. swissuniversities advises against creating such new additional expert panels.
- According to the explanatory report, the path via the Horizon Fund instrument would change the currently applicable provisions in the field of international cooperation in research and innovation, as the principles of the Subsidies Act would now apply. This includes the fact that projects must provide own funds to receive subsidies. For the higher education institutions, it is important that the subsidy law is structured in such a way that the higher education institutions' own contributions are at a minimum level, as otherwise there is a danger that the funds or instruments cannot be used sufficiently or that the own contributions represent an insurmountable obstacle for certain higher education institutions. In addition, the higher education institutions suggest that the overhead (as with the projects in the context of Horizon Europe) be set at 25%.
- The Horizon Fund should ensure that the funds can still be meaningfully committed at the end of 2027. An extension of the duration of the fund should therefore be considered. Furthermore, it must be clarified how the funds earmarked for the transitional measures in 2023 will be dealt with.
In summary, swissuniversities firmly welcomes the proposal for a Horizon Fund law and the objectives it pursues. At the same time, care must be taken in the implementation and specification to ensure that the needs of the higher education institutions are considered in the best possible way to achieve the objectives pursued as effectively as possible. Possibilities for further development of the draft law in this direction should therefore be pursued decidedly. The Horizon Fund law can thus strengthen international research excellence and high-quality teaching in the Swiss higher education landscape.