Cultivating inter-university exchanges

Denis Dafflon, Head of the International Relations Office (F. Imhof © UNIL)

Francine Zambano / L’Uniscope
Two things remain a priority for Denis Dafflon, Head of the International Relations Office since September 2015: developing special partnerships with particular universities and highlighting summer schools. Interview.

Denis Dafflon succeeded Antoinette Charon on 1st September 2015. “The job exactly matches my expectations,” notes Denis Dafflon. The Head of International Relations reveals his ideas for strengthening UNIL’s place on the international stage.

You arrived on 1st September 2015. On a personal level, how would you sum up this initial period spent at the head of international relations?

Denis Dafflon: I am surrounded by a team of seven highly motivated people and the work is varied and interesting. I am taking forward what was achieved by Mrs Charon. The working environment is very pleasant and diverse, as every day we deal with different countries, with professors who want to set up agreements or projects. There are strategic issues around our development aims, delegation visits, etc. The days are therefore rich and varied. I didn’t travel much during the first year but now I’m travelling more for networking and dealing with important issues. That’s how we manage to solve any problems.

Which projects have you emphasised since your arrival?

We’ve placed considerable emphasis on summer schools, which showcase the university. Hosting international programmes during off-peak periods is an excellent concept. It’s a way of attracting people who want to pursue a Masters or PhD, as they have liked the campus and the teaching. We are in the process of setting up a platform to bring together everything that is happening relating to summer schools, whether for doctoral or Masters students. We have recruited a member of staff to do this. The information was previously scattered across faculty websites. We’re going to give it an institutional visibility. This will enable us to sell ourselves abroad. For example, a professor in the Faculty of Geosciences and Environment, specialising in the anthropology of tourism, wants to mount a week-long programme on wine with twenty foreign students. He plans to invite colleagues to the Sion campus. This is scheduled for next summer.

What is your strategy on international agreements?

We listen to what the professors and teaching staff have to say. Some universities have a strategy of developing agreements with a particular region or country, China for example. We do not have such a policy, as after all we are here to serve a local community. We operate a bottom-up strategy. We sign around ten new agreements each year. The aim is to offer as wide a range of options as possible to students so that they can go off to prestigious universities and benefit from an international experience. Alternatively, I recommend special partnerships. We try to adopt a more original approach than one based on the traditional agreement.

With which institutions does the University of Lausanne maintain a special relationship?

With the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Université Laval in Quebec and the University of Lancaster in England.

What do these special agreements involve?

In Arts for example, we support a seminar series on the Romantic period, given by Professor Rachel Falconer, which includes students from both Lausanne and Lancaster. Our students spend five days in the English Lake District. The idea is to mix students and teaching staff and to establish an ongoing synergy. It is also very interesting to see collaboration between departments – management, communication and building management. For example, we have exchanges on the theme of sustainability with Université Laval.

How is this type of agreement set up?

It happens quite naturally. For example, the University of Lancaster contacted us at the end of 2014 to suggest that we might set up a special strategic partnership. We identified common, interdisciplinary themes, such as a responsible future. Small-scale projects emerged. We are going to organise an interfaculty course with them on climate and societal change. Three or four contributors will come from Lancaster to UNIL. Another project involves an exchange of students on field camps for example.

And with Brussels?

We signed a privileged partnership agreement in January 2016. This arose out of numerous existing collaborative initiatives concerning student mobility but also focusing on departments and university governance, notably sustainability. Our institutions are also close as a result of our joint participation in the UNICA network. The idea now is to develop this relationship further through projects that go beyond student mobility and this may take diverse forms: for example joint doctoral days, doctoral networks, jointly organising symposiums, encouraging joint submission of research projects and exchange of administrative staff and good practice relating to governance. In autumn 2016 we organised a visit by a delegation from ULB with the aim of promoting a desire for collaboration among the grassroots – teaching staff and certain departments. I would add that proximity and French as a shared language make ULB a natural partner.

With which university would you like to develop exchanges even further?

With Université Laval which is at the forefront of online and distance teaching. If we could find synergy with this institution, additional skills could gradually be developed on these issues. And why not run an online course together for example? Another idea, proposed by Professor Jaboyedoff, involves setting up international programmes with Laval. The students would follow their Masters curriculum here and would leave for a semester’s study at Laval, learning about different disciplines, forestry for example, that we do not offer here in Lausanne. Ultimately, we hope to set up three or four other special partnerships.

Why is it important to develop further at international level?

I would firstly like to say that the level of internationalisation is not necessarily measured by the number of agreements signed. That is why we are seeking to conclude enhanced agreements. Some institutions have 800 agreements, half of which do not function. Furthermore, at a time when Switzerland is more inward-looking in the wake of the so-called “anti-mass immigration” initiative voted through in 2014, it is important that universities show that nowadays research can only be international. The situation with regard to Horizon 2020 has only recently been fortunately resolved, but the situation with Erasmus+, where we are simply partners and no longer a ‘Programme Country’ remains problematic. We must fight to avoid being isolated. Highlighting the international element is a way of demonstrating that universities need to be integrated into the global scientific network. Being more international means being able to offer students options for mobility within their curriculum, as does taking part in university networks like UNICA. This spring a UNICA workshop on public relations and communication, organised by our communication department, will be held at UNIL. It’s important to learn from each other, as the challenges we face are often the same.

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