01 Jun The cantonal university with an international approach
Prof. Dr. Astrid Epiney, President, University of Fribourg, an institution attracting students, educators, researchers and partners from around the world
The University of Fribourg is a major innovation driver in the western region of Switzerland, offering a wide range of courses through its five faculties. It is Switzerland’s only bilingual university and has about 10,000 students, making it quite a comfortable nest in terms of size. Could you give us an overview of the university and how it stands out in Switzerland’s higher education landscape?
The University of Fribourg is one of the cantonal universities in Switzerland, which means it is financed by the Canton of Fribourg. We have five faculties covering arts and humanities; science and medicine; management, economics and social sciences; law; and theology. The University of Fribourg is the only bilingual university in the country, which is quite remarkable. Switzerland has four national languages: French and German being the most important—French has 20-25 percent speakers in the population and German 70 percent of the population—then we have Romansh and Italian. In our opinion, our university students and graduates have impressive language competences and this is a strong asset for us.
The Canton of Fribourg is rather small, with 300,000 inhabitants—compared to 1.3 or 1.4 million in the Canton of Zürich, for instance—and the town of Fribourg counts about 40,000 people. Our university has a little over 10,000 students, so that is a lot relatively speaking. 80 percent of our students come from Switzerland, including about 18 percent from the Canton of Fribourg, and about 20 percent come from abroad. That is a big difference from other cantonal universities, where the great majority of students come from the canton itself, and this is an important differentiator for the university, as people from a variety of backgrounds can meet each other and mingle, which is important for their professional future.
Among our five faculties, our Faculty of Theology has a long tradition and has developed over recent years as an interdisciplinary science institution. For example, we have founded a new center for Islam and society. Our Faculty of Law is one of the most important in Switzerland, with great reputation and tradition, while our Faculty of Philosophy is the biggest one in the country and has a lot of specialty areas. Our Faculty of Science and Medicine carries out many research activities centered on sports and motricity, life sciences as well as material sciences, and it has numerous contacts within industry and the important players in these fields. Last but not least, we have our Faculty of Economics, which includes a lot of institutes with specific focuses, such as on non-governmental organization management and telecommunications.
What are some of key achievements of the university in terms of research & development?
The University of Fribourg is very strong in research into material sciences—we have a national center of competence and, about ten years ago, we received a $100 million donation from a private individual. As a result, our department of material sciences has seen the largest growth of any in the world.
Aside from that, our university is very strong in interdisciplinary research and teaching, such as Islam and society, family research and research on human interaction science and technology—the relationship between human and machines in a large sense—which is an extremely important topic linked to the digitalization of recent years and the developments that will come in future years.
The university recently engaged in one of the largest studies to analyse the physical and psychological effects of the COVID-19. Can you tell us more about this project and how the university has been impacted by pandemic more widely?
This is a very large project in which several universities will participate. Since mid-March and the lockdown, we have started to launch some research on the psychological effects of COVID-19 on society and economic life—not just on the medical effects.
COVID-19 has been a challenge for us, as it has been for other universities, but we coped well: students managed to access courses online and exams will take place in June at distance, so they will be able to finish or continue their studies in the time planned. We hope to come back to university courses in the classical way this autumn—because even though we managed well, students, professors and lecturers have pointed out that in-person contact and exchange on the campus is very important. For students and researchers, the spontaneous contacts that arise in the cafeteria or at a seminar cannot be replaced by a video conference. To operate at a distance for one semester was fine but we have to do all we can to be able to restart courses in autumn with prevention measures in place, because our plan is not to continue with distant learning.
Digitalization has really been pushed by the crisis. We realized that a lot of projects we had planned for the coming months or years could in fact be completed in days or weeks. I think a lot of the new operational instruments we have developed will remain and will be used for “traditional” teaching methods in the future. I do not think we can abandon classic methods of teaching like seminars or courses where the contact with the professor or lecturer is very important. But the utilization of a lot of the features we developed during the lockdown will remain in addition to the courses. So in-person courses can focus more on discussion and arguments, on training students to present their ideas and for them to be confronted with the ideas of other people.
Internationalization is a key trend that has been accelerating in Swiss universities lately and the coronavirus crisis has only emphasized the importance of global cooperation. The University of Fribourg is very active on the international front, being engaged in a number of national and international research programs, student exchanges and so on.
How do you work to expand and promote the university outside of Switzerland? In this highly competitive market, with thousands of universities out there, what is your strategy for attracting international students, professors, researchers and talents?
Our major strategy is to establish partnerships with other universities all over the world. We choose strategic partnerships—it is not about the quantity but the quality, and we have over a hundred. To give you an example of a strategic partnership: the Center of Transnational Legal Studies in London was co-founded by the University of Georgetown in Washington, the Faculty of Law of the University of Fribourg and about another 10 of the world’s top universities. We send around 15 students a year to this center, where they are confronted by other students from all over the globe. We also have a lot of partnerships for traditional international exchanges of students.
40 percent of our professors are not Swiss, as well as a number of professors who came from abroad but have since acquired Swiss nationality; so about 50 percent of our professors come from abroad. The proportion of assistants, doctoral assistants, lecturers and doctorate students who come from overseas is 50-55 percent, and we have some departments such as material sciences where this proportion is about 70-80 percent. The strategy is to focus on our topics and specialties in each faculty and attract professors and researchers from across the world.
When it comes to research, what kind of efforts is the university making to accelerate technology transfers?
We have a tech transfer office that is charged with this aspect of technology transfer to the industrial sector. Innovation has to be understood in the large sense, it is not only technical innovation but also societal innovation. So, the Faculties of Humanities, Law and Economics have developed many activities, such as the family institute in the life-long training of family conflicts and how to prevent and react to them. In psychology, we have many initiatives and also in law—for example, how to react to crises through legislation, how to adapt legistation and make sure that appropriate legislation comes in on time.
Next academic year promises to be interesting with this pandemic still raging. What specific message would you like to address to the global student community?
It is important to look at the future with a certain optimism and I would encourage students that had plans to go abroad to follow them. It is not a solution to stay at home with your parents. During the crisis, students have to move in one way or another to pursue their plans for international studies, collaboration and cooperation.