University of Zurich (UZH)

Linking refugees to the diversity strategy

The University of Zurich (UZH) has a Diversity Policy: Promoting, Practicing, and Benefiting from Diversity that formalises its commitment to actively and systematically promoting diversity and preventing discrimination. This is an all-encompassing policy covering disability, gender, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, social or occupational position, and language. Refugees are not specifically addressed in the diversity policy. However, they often face intersectional discrimination, the forms of which are indeed covered by the strategy.

Definition of the target group

The target group is defined as “refugees,” which refers to asylum seekers holding an N permit, provisionally admitted foreigners/refugees holding an F permit, and recognised refugees holding a B permit. These are the groups that are usually considered in refugee integration strategies in Switzerland.

History of the diversity strategy

UZH launched its diversity policy in September 2018. In 2019, the mandate of the Office for Gender Equality was expanded to encompass matters of gender identity and sexual orientation, thus renamed the Office for Gender Equality and Diversity, and was mandated to develop an implementation plan. However, most of the work directly targeting refugees is carried out by the university’s International Relations Office rather than its Office for Gender Equality and Diversity. The refugee project at UZH started in spring 2017 as a Discovery Semester, strongly driven by student volunteers, and was gradually professionalised, becoming the START! Study programme.

Activities and services offered to refugees

UZH offers a dedicated integration programme for refugees called the “START! Study” programme. The aim of this programme is for refugees to understand the content and requirements of a study programme at UZH, to prepare themselves for tertiary-level training and continuing education in terms of language skills, and to learn what tertiary-level training and continuing educational opportunities are available in Switzerland. The programme includes:
  • German, English, IT and mathematics classes;
  • A wide selection of modules in different subjects;
  • Methodology sessions for study skills;
  • Counselling;
  • A mentoring programme;
  • Social events.
There will be no programme participation fees for the 2021-2022 academic year. From the academic year 2022-2023 onwards, the responsible municipality will pay a contribution toward the costs. Some public events are organised in the context of START! Study, most of which are for a professional audience and are announced on UZH’s website. Research on this topic is also planned in the future.

Coordination, monitoring and statistics

The Office for Gender Equality and Diversity drafts regular reports for the university’s executive board on the implementation of the diversity policy. START! Study is embedded in the International Relations Office and cooperates with the Admissions Office, the Language Center and other services, and also maintains contact with the Office for Gender Equality and Diversity. From spring 2017 to summer 2021, START! Study had supported 90 students, including students from Turkey (34.4%), Afghanistan (21.1%), Syria (13.3%), Iran (11.1%) and other countries.

Main challenges and ways to overcome them

Refugee integration requires coordination with many stakeholders, which can be challenging. One of the main challenges that UZH is working on right now is the coordination and collaboration with the social services, by trying to involve them more thoroughly in the university integration process. Their endorsement of the activities of START! Study is key to the success of the programme.

Impact of Covid-19 on the institution’s diversity activities

Most courses and events for refugees, as for all other students, took place online as a result of the pandemic. This was not ideal for their motivation and social integration. However, UZH will keep a mixed format in the future with some on-site activities as well as some online activities for information events, due to the benefits that online activities can bring in terms of accessibility.