Swiss schools abroad struggle to survive
Official Swiss schools abroad are facing financial difficulties, despite demand for classes in new locations.
The schools’ umbrella association is warning that if federal subsidies are not increased, teaching could suffer.
Representatives from the 16 Swiss schools around the world are meeting in eastern Switzerland this week to debate their future.
Two hundred and fifty teachers give classes to around 6,500 pupils. Just 2,000 of these students are actually Swiss.
The schools follow the Swiss educational system, using course material supplied by the cantons. They receive financial support from the federal government, usually equivalent to 30 per cent of their operational costs.
While these establishments don’t aim to make a profit, they do need to ensure their income is higher than their day-to-day costs to pay for infrastructure.
The government subsidies have been cut below what the Committee for Swiss Schools Abroad says is a minimum level. Funding for the 2004-2007 period has been reduced by 12 per cent.
In 2007, the total subsidy is expected to be SFr16.5 million ($12.6 million), far less than the SFr20 million the committee is asking for.
"If a school has financial problems, they have to cut into their Swiss teachers’ salaries," warned Derrick Widmer, president of the committee.
While the authorities are aware of the difficulties some schools face, they are considering whether the investment is worth it.
"The spread of Swiss culture abroad does benefit from these schools," admits Jean-Frédéric Jauslin, head of the Federal Culture Office, which oversees the distribution of subsidies.
But Jauslin says it is up to parliament to decide whether it is money well spent.
"We should consider doing more at home and see what we can do abroad without spending too much," he told swissinfo. "I’m not saying that we are paying too much now, but it does seem to be a lot of money when compared with what we are doing domestically."
Despite what he considers to be a lack of cash, Widmer says there is a demand for Swiss schools in cities such as Moscow, Mumbai and Shanghai. "The local Swiss communities have to set up an association to get a federal subsidy," he added.
The committee president says a global network of coordinated Swiss schools is also becoming more important.
"Before, students would spend four years abroad before returning to Switzerland," he told swissinfo. "Today, they travel from one foreign city to another, so it’s important to ensure their education is standardised."
Despite their Swiss moniker, the schools aren’t focused on Switzerland’s national languages.
"Anything between 70 and 80 per cent of students are locals, who have no obvious interest in learning a national language such as German," said Widmer.
If anything, parents want their children to learn English.
"Pupils at Swiss schools abroad get to learn English, as well as other languages, much earlier than students in Switzerland," added Widmer. "In that sense, our foreign schools are more advanced than domestic ones."
Federal subsidies for Swiss schools abroad have been cut by 12 per cent for the 2004-2007 period.
Funding will be equivalent to SFr16.5 million in 2007.
The Federal Culture Office grants subsidies equivalent to 30 per cent of operational costs to officially recognised Swiss schools abroad.
This funding is guaranteed by the Swiss constitution.
Government oversight guarantees the schools’ political and confessional neutrality and ensures they answer a clearly defined demand.
The authorities also pay for part of or all of a Swiss child’s school fees if necessary.
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