In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic helped to put science in the public spotlight more than ever before. A wide variety of questions needed to be answered. What is the current state of knowledge about the novel coronavirus? How can the pandemic be tackled? What measures are appropriate in this fight, and what assumptions are they based on? When will vaccines be available? What social and economic consequences will the pandemic have? For scientists at Swiss higher education institutions, the pandemic is a test, as it reveals the extent to which science can contribute towards finding solutions in times of crisis and limiting the damage caused by the pandemic. Researchers from all disciplines have shown remarkable commitment, and as soon as the situation called for it, they quickly offered the authorities advice on how to deal with the crisis. In this respect, swissuniversities would like to thank, in particular, those experts who have volunteered their services to the COVID-19 Science Task Force.
At the same time, higher education institutions have a duty to teach their students. They are doing everything they can to ensure that students suffer as little as possible from the consequences of the crisis. Students must be able to complete their studies in a reasonable time. Likewise, a high standard of teaching must be maintained, and the value of the degrees awarded must be the same as in previous years. The higher education institutions are aware that this requires additional effort from everyone, and they must be open to new ways of doing things. Both the students and teaching staff have adapted quickly to the constantly changing conditions and have thus made a significant contribution towards ensuring that teaching at the institutions could continue. However, experience has also shown that distance learning has its limitations. Face-to-face interaction remains a fundamental element of the student experience. After all, higher education is largely based on the model of classroom teaching, and this will continue to be the case in the future.
Although coronavirus was omnipresent, it was important to keep an eye on ongoing developments concerning the future of higher education. With the adoption of the Dispatch on the Promotion of Education, Research and Innovation (ERI Dispatch) in December 2020, the Federal Assembly reaffirmed its commitment to Switzerland as a strong centre of education. A basic prerequisite for continuing to carry out high-quality research and teaching is networking at the international level. Federal policy has set the course in this respect, too, in order to enable Switzerland’s future participation in European Union programmes. By rejecting the so-called Limitation Initiative, the Swiss people have prevented our country from becoming isolated in the midst of Europe and have thereby recognised the importance of cross-border cooperation, among other things. In addition, swissuniversities has taken complementary measures in the area of open science, concluded open access agreements with the most important publishers, and developed a strategy for open research data.
When I took over from Michael O. Hengartner as President of swissuniversities in February 2020, the first signs of the coronavirus crisis were just beginning to emerge. However, we had no idea how the pandemic would play out and affect all aspects of our lives.
swissuniversities has continued to evolve as an umbrella organisation against the backdrop of the crisis. The rectors of the Swiss higher education institutions worked together even more closely, discussed commonalities and differences, and formulated common goals. For the higher education community, 2020 was a year full of intense but valuable experiences. The things we learned will help us to overcome future challenges.
Prof. Dr Yves Flückiger
President of swissuniversities