Many Serbian students see Switzerland as the perfect country in which to study. They describe it as some sort of study-paradise where there is no excessive bureaucracy, no corrupt professors, no cuts to research funding, no bought diplomas, and no other real problems. Everything seems perfect and in order, clear and predictable, without nasty surprises or negative experiences. Perfection, punctuality, and productivity. Those are the things one hears when asking Serbian students in Belgrade how they imagine student life in Switzerland.
Indeed, they are not far off with their assumptions about Switzerland. Switzerland is a country which offers considerable opportunities when it comes to higher education. From west to east, from north to south, the country’s public, confederate and cantonal universities and colleges are of great quality and of minimal costs. Whoever is looking for a place at university which does not cost an arm and a leg – Switzerland is the place to be.
“Bad” public universities and colleges do not really exist in Switzerland. Of course there are better and worse institutions, but, compared globally, even the “worst” Swiss university does favourably. Compared nationally, the differences do play a role. For example, the University of Neuchatel cannot match up to Zurich’s ETH. Nonetheless, both are great places for studying.
Those students planning on coming to Switzerland to study first have to carefully think about which language area they want to live in. Switzerland offers fields of study in three of the four national languages (German, French, and Italian) as well as a few occasional disciplines in English. The largest offers exist in German and French, while there are fewer branches of study in Italian.
For students from Serbia, the German speaking part of the country might be more attractive than the French or Italian, since a large Serbian (and Ex-Yugoslavian) community lives there. The Romandy (French-speaking part) is not to be scoffed at either though. Mentality wise, however, the canton of Ticino might be the best choice for Serbs, as people with a Serbian-Balkan background may be much more compatible with the Swiss-Italian lifestyle than with the Swiss-German or Swiss-French way of life. Unfortunately, not many opportunities for studying exist in Ticino, which exacerbates moving there to study.
Scholarships are limited in Switzerland, as study costs are pretty low already (compared to universities across the world). The scholarship system is regulated on a cantonal level, so that the rules for scholarships differ from one canton to another. Likewise, the amount one receives varies amongst the cantons. For international students, it would be best to ask the university at which they wish to study for more information on the topic. Additionally, private scholarship providers exist.
It is not exactly easy for Serbian students to apply for a scholarship in Switzerland. There are many obstacles: First, one’s application for a certain course of study has to be approved – which is not always the case. It is particularly difficult to be approved for fields of study which are very popular and already have a high number of students, such as economics, law, psychology etc. The best options for Serbs seem to be natural sciences and mathematics. Secondly, it can sometimes be difficult to receive a residence permit, which can, however, be facilitated once a student has been approved by their university of choice. Still, there is no guarantee that a permit will be given. This, too, can vary from canton to canton.
Study systems can differ in certain aspects as well. Compared to Serbia, Swiss students have to work in groups and conduct group projects more often. They usually also have to write considerably more papers and essays than students in Serbia (of course, this also depends on one’s course of study). Substantial importance is attached to proper citing and referencing as well as to a technically thorough paper. Oral exams are not as frequent as written exams. Almost all exams can only be taken twice; if a student fails a compulsory subject a second time, one is usually blocked from studying further and has to change one’s course of study. Thus, the system is very strict. In the more popular fields of study (economics, law, psychology etc.) the failure rate is very high, as that is the way for universities to reduce the number of students in a certain field.
Another important point is how to finance one’s studies. A foreign student with a student visa can work a maximum of 60 hours per month (and a maximum of 15 hours per week). Only during the semester break is one allowed to work full time. On average, students make around 20-25 francs per hour. It can be difficult to find a job, particularly if one does not speak the language of the area. The monthly gross income can thus amount to approximately 800-1000 francs. In Switzerland, this is a very low amount if one considers health insurance costs, accommodation costs, living expenses, costs for transportation etc. Without the additional financial help of one’s parents or other sponsors, many students could not afford a living in Switzerland.
Interpersonally, Serbs also require some getting used to Switzerland. The Swiss mentality differs vastly from the Serbian or Balkan mentality. People seem to be more closed and less outgoing here. Swiss people usually maintain a friendly distance to strangers and new acquaintances. Many Serbian students who came from Serbia to Switzerland say that they struggle to make proper friends in Swiss people or to be accepted in Swiss circles of friends. Instead, they usually befriend other foreign or international students. This can be more or less difficult, depending on what field of study one has chosen – some have more or less international students. International organisations such as AIESEC, IAESTE or AEGEE provide a good opportunity to meet new people.
Unfortunately, every now and then it still happens that Serbs or Swiss with a Serbian background are discriminated against in the matter of job hunting or work because of their names or their heritage. Having a Balkan-background seems to make things more difficult compared to being a foreigner from another part of Europe. Swiss people sometimes still show reservations and prejudice towards people from the Balkans. So, if one has an ‘-ic’ at the end of one’s surname, one might have to put in twice the effort.