Politicians and experts have called for increased efforts to halt the brain drain from Switzerland. At the congress of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad, they highlighted the need for Switzerland to reform its education system.
A panel of experts in the town of Zug on Saturday agreed that Switzerland's education system still enjoys a high reputation. But they said more ought to be done to carry out the necessary changes to ensure that Switzerland does not lose its competitiveness.
Johannes Randegger, a member of parliament and representative of the business community, pointed out that Switzerland has been falling behind other leading countries in the world. He said investment in research has stagnated for several years.
Randegger also called for a more competitive spirit in Switzerland's traditionally federalist education system. "We must ensure that our universities and technical colleges do not suffer a brain drain of highly qualified scientists. And it is vital that our schools and research institutes attract top experts from abroad."
He came out in favour of more investment in training programmes for modern technology and the introduction of English in schools at an earlier stage.
Thomas Straubhaar, professor of economics at Hamburg university in Germany, reinforced calls for massive investment in education to halt the brain drain in Switzerland. "Swiss students have to be more flexible and mobile", he said, "and the Swiss education system sets too many bureaucratic hurdles for student exchanges."
The state secretary in the interior ministry, Charles Kleiber, said schools had a two-fold task. They had to train people who can fulfil the needs of the labour market. Kleiber said: "Schools are a public service and have the crucial task of helping young people to become responsible citizens and critical consumers."
Kleiber said educational matters should remain in the hands of Switzerland's 26 cantons, but he called for increased coordination among all parties involved.
For Martine Brunschwig Graf, responsible for education in canton Geneva, it is essential to agree on the main aims of education. She said pupils had to be encouraged to act with more self-confidence and schools had to teach them to take more risks without expecting every attempt to be a success.
The education expert, Bruno Behr, from Fribourg university, for his part, called for measures to train up an elite. "We should not shy away from efforts to attract rich and specially talented students, if we can offer them excellent opportunities."
Several speakers also pointed out the importance of fundamental values and social skills in teaching, such as tolerance. They said this could prevent an upsurge in racism and xenophobia.
Rodolfo Steingruber, the head of a Swiss school in Brazil, extolled the virtues of Switzerland's dual system of education, that is, the promotion of academic and professional training schemes. He also praised the high standard of apprenticeships in Switzerland.
The president of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad, Georg Stucky, appealed to the authorities to increase subsidies to Swiss schools abroad. He said many of them suffered badly from cutbacks and warned that some institutions in Europe risked being closed down.
Stucky described the Swiss schools abroad as pillars of the Swiss presence around the world and ambassadors of multi-cultural education. There are currently 17 Swiss schools in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa.
In a key-note address by the Federal Chancellor to this year's Congress of the Swiss Abroad, Annemarie Huber-Hotz, she pointed to the importance of political participation in a democracy. She came out in favour of introducing voting by electronic mail.
Huber-Hotz said e-voting would make it much easier for Swiss citizens living abroad to take part in ballots and elections. But she warned it could take several years before the new system could be introduced.
Huber-Hotz said Swiss expatriates had an important part to play in starting a debate on the government's aim to lead Switzerland into the United Nations. A vote on the issue is expected in 2002.
She said expatriates were experiencing the benefits of close contacts in a variety of cultural, social as well as economic environments.
On Friday, the Council of the Swiss Abroad came out in favour of Swiss membership of the UN. The council also agreed to adopt a higher profile in Switzerland.
As a member of the Swiss government, Huber-Hotz also called on voters to reject a people's initiative aimed at limiting the number of foreign residents in Switzerland. The issue will come to a nationwide vote next month.
The three-day congress of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad in the town of Zug, is attended by about 450 people from around the world. On Sunday, the guests will travel to the Rigi mountain in central Switzerland.
by Urs Geiser
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