Where Switzerland is called “Luxembourg City”
Whether in the USA, Chile or Japan: the FHS St.Gallen is always interested in forming partnerships with international universities. To find potential new partners, FHS representatives regularly travel to other countries on behalf of the International Office IO-FHS. Sigmar Willi* and Thomas Metzger** were recently in East Asia. In an interview, they talk about intercultural challenges and how a small university of applied sciences can hold its own in the big world.
Sigmar and Thomas, is the FHS known in Asia?
Sigmar Willi: Yes, to some extent, due to the partnerships with some universities over there. In other words, in places where we have a local presence and personal contacts. But in some of the countries, many people don’t even know where Switzerland is. We recently visited a Malaysian university that had a huge map of the world hanging on the wall in its international office. On it, Switzerland was described as “Luxembourg City”! Experience has taught us that raising awareness of ourselves and clarifying misunderstandings at local level is really all we can do.
One would think that Switzerland’s reputation would precede it, due to its high standard of education.
Willi: This depends very much on the individual countries and their regions. The big Swiss universities are well-known in some places. However, what we often experience is that students from Anglo-Saxon countries in particular are more likely to think of Paris, Barcelona or London when travelling to other parts of Europe. And if they do happen to consider Switzerland, then its usually only “Zurich” or “Geneva”. St.Gallen is nowhere near as well-known. But it’s not really a big deal for us.
Willi: Because the FHS doesn’t generally pursue the strategy of becoming as international as possible. Rather, we like to concentrate on the needs of Eastern Switzerland.
What are the benefits of doing so?
Thomas Metzger: Our focus is on companies in Eastern Switzerland that operate internationally. We work together with such businesses to set up real-life student consulting projects in which mixed teams of international students propose specific solutions to real problems faced by the companies abroad. The FHS believes that these projects are very valuable. Our partner universities are not familiar with such systematically application-oriented modules and are very interested in offering them to their own students. We have therefore been able to persuade many renowned foreign universities to forge a partnership with us.
So the international partnerships revolve primarily around exchange students?
Metzger: Large universities aim for more in their contracts, such as more international programs. The FHS is currently aiming to increase the number of student exchanges in particular. Such contracts allow us to send FHS students to partner universities and to host their students in return. Due to the partnership, students only have to pay for food and accommodation – there are no additional course fees. This creates a win-win situation for the students and the participating universities. We also have a system whereby we regularly exchange lecturers. And there has also been the occasional joint publication for research projects.
But such partners first have to be found. Were you successful in Malaysia?
Willi: Yes. We aren’t completely satisfied with a partnership that we currently have with a Taiwanese university, which is why we were looking to establish a relationship with another university in Taiwan. And we succeeded in doing so.
By simply arranging a meeting and going over to visit once?
Willi: If only it were that simple! We were at a big conference where countries and universities present themselves with booths. The aim is to strike up a conversation and negotiate contracts.
“Hi guys, nice suits!” That’s how I would try to get a conversation started.
Metzger: In Asia, you can’t break the ice with a casual comment, unfortunately. It takes a lot of intercultural awareness to be successful in other cultures. Particularly in Asia, it’s important to show genuine interest. Asians are extremely polite and more distant than we Europeans. It is counter-productive to dive straight in with our direct, Western way of doing things. First of all, it’s important to listen. But door openers can also help.
Metzger: Yes, they can take the form of certain cultural customs, but also formalities such as accreditations. AACSB, for example, is one of the most important certificates for universities with business schools. It is much easier to get close to big or really good international universities if you have this accreditation. That’s precisely why we’re currently working towards gaining it for the FHS.
In what other ways was your last trip worthwhile?
Willi: We were able to convince ourselves of the quality of our new partner school in Kuala Lumpur at first hand. We held three very exciting talks with potential Taiwanese partner universities, as well as several status quo meetings with existing partners. We also had to gain the trust of the conservative Japanese university in Rikkyo, in order not to jeopardise the first incoming student being transferred to us at the FHS.
Is it difficult to get incoming students?
Willi: Very! Switzerland is very expensive compared to the rest of the world. English is not our national language and no one has really heard of St.Gallen. What’s more, we have to sell the city of St.Gallen as our campus to students who are accustomed to vast sites with 30,000 people.
* Prof. Sigmar Willi: Founder and developer of the International Office of the FHS St.Gallen
** Prof. Thomas Metzger: Head of Teaching at the FHS St.Gallen Business School