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Should the West be so obsessed with international student recruitment?

A SWISS academic has urged western universities to do more joint research with developing countries in Africa and Asia to overcome man-made problems like climate change and focus less on international student recruitment.

ETH Zürich's Professor Gerhard Schmitt

ETH Zürich’s Professor Gerhard Schmitt

Gerhard Schmitt, Professor of Information Architecture at ETH Zürich and founding-director of the Singapore-ETH Centre, was speaking to  a workshop on ‘Moving Abroad’ at the European Public Relations and Information Officers association (EUPRIO) annual conference in Innsbruck.

He said: “We often seem obsessed with trying to recruit, almost extract, as many of the best and most talented international students from other regions to study at our universities.

“Instead we should do something together with these universities. That way, researchers, students, society and industry benefit much more, as we have seen with the Singapore-ETH Centre.”

Break with teaching branch campuses

Professor Schmitt explained that ETH Zürich had developed its Singapore centre in collaboration with the National Research Foundation of Singapore in a move that represented a major break with the rush by western universities to set-up teaching branch campuses in South East Asia.

Instead on focusing on teaching and student recruitment, ETH’s ‘Future Cities Laboratory’ is based on research and postgraduate and postdoctoral training – and engagement with industry, governments and anyone else able to influence climate change and the growing threat to health and well-being of inhabitants of the rapidly growing megacities in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world.

We’ve done great damage

Prof Schmitt told the EUPRIO workshop that the West had done great damage by encouraging areas like Singapore and the megacities of China and India to develop rapidly using imported models for expansion, which were unsustainable in tropical climates.

“Western people come and tell them what to do and it only increases climate change problems. Our influence has led to a huge mess.

Research in Singapore could benefit others

“That’s why we want to research something locally in Singapore that can be applied to benefits other countries.

“It is also why we want to do research to try to find solutions before doing teaching. Our centre in Singapore has the clear goal of finding answers to global challenges and focusing on areas that cannot be handled so successfully or meaningfully in Switzerland.

“Many cities have developed without any thought to sustainability as a priority.

“Take Shenzhen in China. Thirty years it was the size of Innsbruck in Austria (population 120,000). Today Shenzhen has 15 million and plans to increase its social resilience and tackle problems with transportation as people ‘live’ on the outskirts, far away from work, leisure and other facilities.”

Prof Schmitt said in recent decades the average temperature in the centres of large tropical cities has risen much faster than the surrounding countryside because of rising heat output by industry, cars and buildings.

“The heat island effect is incredible; and as more people can afford air-conditioning the situation is getting worse, especially for those who can’t afford to air condition their homes.”

Major commitment required

Prof Schmitt said the Singapore-ETH centre required a major commitment in its early years from ETH Zürich faculty, with the personal engagement of 10 or more full professors prepared to commit to lengthy spells of time away from Switzerland, plus 15 principal investigators, PhD-design research and post-doc students able to work in a highly trans-disciplinary environment.

Today the Singapore centre consists of about 30% of faculty coming from Europe, 25% Singaporean professors, post-docs and PhDs, and the rest made up of experts and researchers from Asia, North and South America and Africa.


Prof Schmitt and his ETH colleagues are now looking forward to building on some of the exciting collaborative ventures underway in Africa and eventually establish another centre for global environmental sustainability along the lines of the Singapore-ETH Centre.


A new MOOC on Future Cities was launched by ETH in September by the EdX consortium. It had 10,000 signed up before it started and aims to give an overview of how the city is a system and how and when you can influence the system to make it more resilient.

* THIS is an abridged version of interview NIC MITCHELL had with Prof Schmitt after the EUPRIO conference. The full version you can read here:  University World News.

* Words: NIC MITCHELL (alias EuprioNic)

* Main photo: EdX-ETH Future Cities (MOOC) course