International Exchange

COVID-19 thwarted the plans of exchange students in Zurich and all over the world. We inquired about the implications the crisis is having on student mobility – and how UZH students have made the best of their “corona stay” in their host country

By Alice Werner
Translation by Toby Alleyne-Gee

Marcia Arbenz sitzt auf einem Koffer
Die Psychologiestudentin Marcia Arbenz hat ihr Austauschsemester in Schweden verbracht.


"Before corona, my exchange semester was just great,” says Marcia Arbenz, who is studying psychology at UZH and spent a few months in Sweden last spring. “Pub crawls, games nights, organized hikes: The student clubs at the University of Lund made it easy to meet new people. Personal contact was also important at the university. The seminars essentially consisted of critical discussions on various psychological theories. I liked how much the professors were interested in students’ opinions. Ideas were exchanged on an equal footing. While the pandemic situation deteriorated internationally, day-to-day life in Lund continued as usual. However, at the end of March, the US and Canadian universities recalled their students, and most exchange students fled Sweden within a matter of days. All of a sudden, the city was half empty.”

The rush home

Unlike many other universities, UZH only gave a recommendation, not an instruction, to return home during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring of last year. Nonetheless, almost half of the outgoing UZH exchange students abroad broke off their stay in their host countries, some of them hastily. Many of them will probably have felt like Marcia Arbenz, who was afraid of not being able to get home because of the chaotic situation at the borders. “The idea of possibly being trapped alone indefinitely in a foreign country was very disturbing, so in the last week of March I packed up my things, sold my bike and said goodbye to as many friends as I could. I then took one of the last flights back to Zurich.” Those who had to interrupt their stay in a host country due to the coronavirus were at least able to complete their semester online. Judging from progress reports submitted by exchange students to the Global Student Experience department after their semester abroad, the transition to e-learning was smooth at practically all UZH’s partner universities. Marcia Arbenz had no problem with being taught online. “Instead of the normal lectures and sessions, there were Zoom meetings. Lecturers also provided videos with suggestions for self-study.” However, she did have to abandon the idea of taking a trip through Scandinavia lasting several weeks that she had planned for the semester vacation. “Corona destroyed what could have been one of the best times of my life.” Yet even if the crisis thwarted her plans and she was able to spend only half the semester in Scandinavia, Marcia Arbenz benefited greatly from her stay abroad: “Sweden gave me considerably more courage, self-confidence and independence.”

“Facilitating student mobility – even in times of crisis”

Interview: Alice Werner

Ms. Schacher, you are head of the Global Student Experience (GSE) department. How have you experienced the past year?

The coronavirus pandemic was a major challenge for us in every respect, involving considerably more work in terms of organization and communication. On the one hand, we had to provide greater support for the international students by actively informing them of the frequently changing entry and quarantine conditions, for example. We also considered with them how best to organize their stay in Zurich under the circumstances dictated by the pandemic. On the other hand, we were occupied by the fact that many of our partner universities in Europe and overseas completely cancelled their student exchange programs for the entire 2020 year. In these cases, we endeavored to organize other places for the UZH students concerned or to postpone their exchanges until the following semester.


How well did that work?

Considering the circumstances, it worked well. We maintained close contact with the UZH students concerned in order to find an alternative for all of them. But of course, not all students were able to reschedule their exchange – for personal or study-related reasons – and due to restricted capacity, our partner universities were also unable to accept all students who wanted to postpone their semester abroad to a later date. Creative solutions and a certain goodwill were required on the part of the universities with respect to such matters as application deadlines for exchange places. Students, for their part, were expected to be prepared to spend their exchange in a location other than their desired destination.


But overall, exchange figures have declined sharply over the past year.

Yes, and that didn’t come as a surprise. Anyone who could postpone their exchange did so. In the 2020 Fall Semester, about 50% fewer UZH students went to another university than the previous year, and about 35% fewer international exchange students came to Zurich. Exchange programs outside Europe were the worst affected – with 90% fewer outgoing and over 40% fewer incoming students. In view of the current travel restrictions, that isn’t surprising either.


Unlike many other universities, UZH also kept the student exchange program open during the coronavirus crisis. Why was that important to you?

In March 2020, the Spring Semester had already begun for most UZH students, and they were in situ at a partner university. At such a time, it was eminently important to us that the students shouldn’t lose a semester of their studies, regardless of whether they stayed put, traveled back to Switzerland or hadn’t yet left. In the 2020 Fall Semester, the situation was different. Most exchange places had already been assigned in the spring, but there was great uncertainty as to whether an exchange could happen at all. For students, an exchange semester is a unique opportunity. Such a venture can’t be postponed at will; at a later date it might no longer fit with your degree course, you might not be given the exchange place at the desired destination, or there might not be a suitable exchange contract. Even during a pandemic, the students’ need to gain international experience doesn’t just disappear. That’s why we wanted to facilitate as much student mobility as the epidemiological situation allowed. Obviously, we were more successful at this in some areas of the world than others.


Due to the precarious Corona situation, UZH was also unable to provide classroom teaching during the 2020 Fall Semester. Nonetheless, about 250 exchange students came to Zurich. How did they find their virtual studies?

It was a major challenge for the incoming students to find their feet at UZH. All induction events took place online, and the range of social events, such as those offered by the Erasmus Student Network, was very limited. The students knew beforehand that the vast majority of teaching would take place online. In this regard they were very understanding, and according to their feedback, most students were also satisfied with the online courses. Since the restrictions in Switzerland weren’t quite so limiting, they were still able to get to the know the country a little. In that respect, the greater flexibility they had thanks to their online studies was perhaps even an advantage. In principle, of course, it’s always better to be able participate fully in local life, but I think that most students made the best of the situation.


How actively are the new possibilities of the virtual semester abroad being used (in other words, staying in one’s home country, but attending online lectures at the host university)?

I think it’s important to differentiate here. In the 2020 Spring Semester, half of our exchange students came back to Switzerland ahead of schedule, but continued to attend online lectures at their partner universities. This was due to the exceptional situation. But for us, doing an exchange semester where you actually travel abroad remains the best solution. Even if courses are completely or partially offered online, attending a course in an unfamiliar environment rather than from your room in a shared flat is still another experience. Of course, you can still have intercultural experiences in a such a situation. You can familiarize yourself with the local conditions, such as how other countries and universities are handling such a crisis. However, there are other forms of student mobility that can certainly work well in a purely virtual format, such as the UZH summer schools, which were also a success online.


The pandemic is likely to stay with us for some time to come. What impact do you think it will have on student mobility?

Students will have to continue to be flexible – and we will have to be flexible with them. There is still a great deal of uncertainty. At the same time, we see that many students have the desire to benefit from what other universities have to offer and to immerse themselves in a different academic environment, and to get to know different cities, countries and cultures. This means that, in the medium term, the number of exchanges will probably rise to levels similar to pre-2020 figures as soon as the epidemiological situation has eased.


Can you also identify a positive impact on student mobility in the long term?

Even before the pandemic, a trend was emerging. New formats in student mobility are becoming more important – a development that could now gather pace and become more pronounced. The EU already took these new requirements into account some time ago. In view of the pandemic, the new Erasmus program’s (2021–27) keywords “Digitalization, Inclusion and Sustainability” are more relevant than ever. In future, it is possible that, among other things, so-called “blended mobility” – a combination between online courses and a shorter period of physical mobility – will be promoted. Offers such as these can also have an inclusive effect by enabling students to gain international experience when, for various reasons, an entire semester abroad is out of the question. A trend towards European destinations, which on the one hand can be reached sustainably by train and on the other are easier to leave in an emergency, could also be a consequence of the pandemic. In order for Swiss universities to keep up in these important areas and to be able to act and contribute again as fully fledged partners in Europe, it is hugely important that we rejoin the Erasmus program soon. In the long term, the options for students to gain international experience will become more flexible, both in form and duration. But one conviction remains: physical exchange will continue to play an important role in student mobility at UZH, which is not a distance-learning university, and nor is it about to become one.

Studying abroad

The Global Student Experience (GSE) department, which is part of the Office of the Vice President Education and Student Affairs, helps UZH (outgoing) students as well as (incoming) students from abroad to plan and realize their stay abroad. The department also establishes the basis for student mobility by administering exchange agreements with partner universities, for example, and by securing and expanding the range of exchange options for UZH students in Europe and overseas. UZH currently has exchange agreements with more than 300 partner universities. Furthermore, the GSE team advises UZH staff on issues pertaining to student mobility.