#124 The G|O Briefing, January 26, 2023

A certification for Geneva school Swiss UMEF | Is the pandemic over? | Data comes to the SDGs' aid| Europe transformed

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in The Geneva Observer, a follow-up story to last year’s G|O investigation on private schools in Geneva, and three years—almost to the day—after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, a report on tomorrow’s meeting of the WHO Emergency Committee. Plus, as the US and Germany announced yesterday their decision to supply Ukraine with tanks, a guest essay by Joschka Fischer, former German Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister, of the Greens, on what he calls the transformation of Europe.

As usual, it’s all below. But first, another example of how International Geneva’s dense ecosystem can produce innovative initiatives. Swiss President Alain Berset and WHO’s chief Dr. Tedros shared the stage today to launch “Project Rosling,” named after the late global health expert and world-famous statistician Hans Rosling, who regularly broke audience records (15 million views) with his TED Talks.

Project Rosling aims to make essential data publicly and readily available to help inform better decision-making when tackling today’s most pressing challenges. The initiative was conceived during the UN World Data Forum (UNWDF) held in Bern two years ago. During the Bern gathering, member states approved the Bern Data Compact whose main objective is to strengthen the implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“The foundations on which we make our political and economic decisions are fragile,” the Swiss President said at today’s event, and need to be based on hard facts and verified data. He called for more collaboration on data to address health issues, poverty, famine and global warming.

Dr. Tedros reminded the audience that robust data has proven to be central in devising a response to the pandemic, citing statistics on the number of infections, casualties, hospitalizations, and the rate of vaccinations. These numbers, Tedros said, fueled decisions such as where and when to wear a mask or the maximum number of people in a room. “We will not achieve the SDGs with the fragmented and under-resourced health data systems that persist in many regions,” he said, calling for greater investment in such projects.


Geneva-based Swiss UMEF is now certified—but further changes are required

By Sarah Zeines

On December 16, Swiss UMEF became Geneva’s only private school to be certified by the Swiss Accreditation Council (SAC) under the new Swiss certification requirements that have come into force on January 1, 2023. But the SAC’s seal of approval comes at a high price: Swiss UMEF—an institution labeled “a scam” by some former students and staff members during a G|O investigation last year—can no longer bill itself a “university”, the very denomination it boasted for years to attract students from all over the world to Geneva.

Dropping the university appellation from its name is not the only condition that the institution must meet. Its accreditation by the SAC comes with a laundry list of other requirements that must be implemented to keep its standing with the credentialing body.

An audit by the Evaluation Agency of Baden-Württemberg (EVALAG) led to the school’s certification, and the report (in French) highlights several issues relating to practices at Swiss UMEF, including unclear financial transactions, a high number of external staff, and the absence of an internal quality control system.

The SAC’s decision was hailed by the school on social media before it was officially announced by the certification body. But a close reading of the 80-page document reveals some persistent problems. The school has two years to meet eleven conditions if it wants to keep its federal certification.

So far, despite a deadline that expired at the end of last year, Swiss UMEF has yet to comply with the demand that it changes its name and no longer bills itself as a university. Although the SAC writes that “the mention of the term ‘university’ can be misleading to the public, especially to candidates who wish to study at the institution,” the SAC has no authority to enforce the change. The responsibility now lies with the Canton of Geneva.

“We are currently sending out reminders (to private higher education institutions) and we will take legal measures for the small number of situations that have yet to be addressed,” informs Pierre-Antoine Preti, spokesman for the Département de l’instruction publique (DIP).

Swiss UMEF, however, has already started making changes since entering the accreditation process back in 2021. The institute has ceased to advertise two doctoral programs in Management Science and International Relations & Diplomacy. “These two programs do not count as those authorized in universities of applied sciences,” writes the SAC, praising Swiss UMEF’s cooperation on the matter.

Two years to bring about internal reform

EVALAG’s report raises questions about UMEF’s business model. “The amounts for the school fees do not correspond to the income indicated. There are a substantial number of external staff members who are not salaried, and there are unclear financial transactions amongst the school’s shareholders,” writes the SAC, basing its evaluation on EVALAG’s report. “UMEF is a small organization that has two Faculties comprising a permanent staff of 5 people having delivered a total of 36 diplomas in 2019/2020 for a total revenue of less than 500,000 CHF in 2019.”

These are issues confirmed by Billie* (not the person’s real name), a former employee of Swiss UMEF who the G|O spoke to by phone: “My contract stated that 50% of my income would be paid at the end of my teaching hours, with the rest received months later, after grading the students. In between, there is no payment for the hours worked.”

EVALAG’s auditors also flag the lack of an internal quality control mechanism: “The absence of a real insurance quality system makes the precise workload of the quality committee and its efficiency unclear. This also applies to its role in light of the future strategic development of the quality insurance system. Globally, the experts observe a lack of clarity towards the committee’s members, their roles and responsibilities, as well as the criteria for the nomination of external members,” writes the SAC.

According to the document, the school’s entire internal structure also needs to be reformed. “The school depends strongly on external professors. This dependence will most likely damage a stable and long-term offer.”

Why give the school the highest recognition of its kind in the country, despite these issues? “The SAC needs to respect a constricting legal framework,” insists Bastien Brodard, the SAC’s Secretary. “It is not difficult to be admitted to the accreditation process. The SAC’s decision is made based on an institution’s credibility in being able to meet some formal criteria. The idea is to allow institutions to be evaluated against the demanding quality standards of institutional accreditation. Swiss UMEF still has a lot of work to do.”


Could Webster University have to rename itself?

By Sarah Zeines

The change in the Swiss Higher Education Act, which aims to coordinate, maintain the quality, and ensure the competitiveness of the entire higher education sector in Switzerland, has prompted several schools to apply for a federal accreditation. Without the national government’s stamp of approval, schools with the word “university” in their title need to revise their denomination, instead using appellations such as “institute” or “school”.

Webster University is widely considered to be one of the most respected private education institutions in Geneva. Established here in 1979, Webster delivers PhDs, and its credits are recognized by several higher education institutions around the world, including some Ivy League colleges in the US. We understand that Webster University also applied for accreditation, before deciding not to follow through.

Webster initially mandated the Swiss Agency of Accreditation and Quality Assurance (AAQ) for its accreditation request, before pulling out mid-process. “It was a close call, but the school’s board eventually decided to amend different aspects of its organization to improve the school’s chances of success,” explains Christoph Grolimund, AAQ director.

“Formally, we have not refused Webster’s accreditation, since there has been no decision from the SAC,” notes Bastien Brodard, the organization’s spokesperson. “AAQ has simply informed the SAC that the school decided to withdraw its application.”

It is not clear if the institution will be able to continue operation as Webster University without accreditation. Sources familiar with the matter told us, however, that Webster has indeed been asked to change its name.

Webster’s Director-General Ryan Guffey has not replied to The G|O’s repeated requests for comment.


Three years later, is COVID-19 still a public health emergency of international concern?

By Jamil Chade

Tomorrow (Friday, January 27), the  Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization will meet. The only item on its agenda? Whether today, three years after COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), the virus remains one. Under the International Health Regulations, which guide WHO’s mandate, a PHEIC is an “extraordinary event that may constitute a public health risk to other countries through the international spread of disease and may require a coordinated international response.”

Last year, WHO’s chief Tedros Ghebreyesus said he hoped to see an end to the crisis in 2023. His early optimism, however, has recently been dampened by rising infection and death rates, forcing him to express serious reservations about downgrading the COVID-19 pandemic status ahead of tomorrow’s meeting of the Emergency Committee.

“While I will not pre-empt the advice of the Emergency Committee, I remain very concerned about the situation in many countries and the increasing number of deaths,” he declared this week at the organization’s regular press briefing. “The world,” he said, is in “better shape than before” to tackle the crisis. But he also stressed that the global response is once again “stretched,” reminding us that, according to WHO’s figures, 170,000 people have died from COVID-19 in just eight weeks since December. This high figure, coupled with the continuous uncertainty of the situation in China, will bear on the Emergency Committee’s deliberation. The matter is sensitive.

Three years ago, on January 22, 2020, despite information coming from China and elsewhere that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission, and aware of Beijing’s decision to go into lockdown on January 23, the Committee failed to come to an agreement. Precious time was wasted, and it was not until a week later, on January 30, that a PHEIC was eventually declared by the WHO. The delay led governments to question the current system and to initiate a revision of the rules governing health diplomacy.

Today, the Emergency Committee consists of 18 members, who do not report to or represent national governments. Their role is to advise the Director-General based solely on scientific considerations.

“Too many people are missing their boosters, and too many people aren't getting the right care,” Tedros said. “Fragile health systems are struggling to keep up with the situation, and sequencing of the virus is down significantly. Do not underestimate this virus. It will continue to surprise and kill,” the Director-General warned on Tuesday.


Europe Transformed

By Joschka Fischer*

Next month, Russia’s violent assault on neighboring Ukraine will have been going on for one year. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan for a quick “special military operation” – a “Blitzkrieg” – has failed, owing to Ukraine’s unflinching resistance, the West’s united support of its defense, and Russia’s own incompetence.

Rather than a rapid military victory culminating in regime change, Putin’s “special operation” has instead descended into positional warfare. Even after a year, no one can say for certain when and how the war will end. Most likely, it will continue for some time, claiming many more victims. Yet it is hard to imagine a scenario in which Russia could still achieve its primary goal of eliminating Ukraine as a sovereign, independent state.

As long as NATO and its member states continue to provide military and economic support to Ukraine, and as long as the Ukrainian people maintain their resolve, Russia will not achieve its war aims. This realization seems to be dawning slowly on the Kremlin, which has stepped up its attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure and mobilized hundreds of thousands of conscripts. Russian military leaders are now betting on a long-term strategy of demoralization and exhaustion, relying on sheer numerical superiority over the Ukrainian army.

But this amounts to an act of two-fold destruction. A strategy of “quantitative dominance” requires the Russian leadership to give no consideration to the lives of its own soldiers, not to mention those of Ukrainian civilians. With each passing day, the criminality of Russia’s malicious war becomes more apparent. Whenever the fighting does stop, much of Eastern Europe will have been laid to waste, leaving behind a deep and abiding hatred. The guns will eventually fall silent, but there will be no peace. Ukraine will have to do everything in its power to deter another attack, and Western Europe will continue to rearm on a massive scale, possibly for decades to come.

With Ukraine forming a kind of security cordon between Russia and the rest of Europe, there will be an impetus for it to join both NATO and the European Union in relatively short order. Moreover, the EU’s own geopolitical and security interests will have changed, transforming the institution in the process. The prospect of Ukrainian membership will necessarily shift Europe’s focus eastward.

With his illegal war, Putin wanted to keep NATO at bay. But he has achieved the exact opposite. Finland and Sweden will now join the alliance, and the entire European continent will line up behind its shield. The EU and NATO will develop a much closer working relationship, lending vastly more geopolitical weight to the transatlantic region.

Such a transformation will be necessary in a world that is increasingly marked by deep distrust between states, and by a growing divide between authoritarian regimes and more open, democratic systems. These dynamics apply first and foremost to economic relations. By giving the West cause to withhold capital, technology, goods, and services, Putin has done his Chinese friends a great disservice.

As Europe’s attention turns to ensuring its own safety from Russia, and to rebuilding Ukraine and preparing for its integration into the EU, a burning question will loom: What will become of Russia itself?

Putin’s vision of a globally powerful Greater Russia has been exposed as a pipe dream. The war and Western sanctions are hitting the Russian economy hard, and the longer the fighting continues, the greater the costs will be. And Russia’s long neglect of economic diversification and modernization implies that incomes and living conditions will decline sharply. Spurred by not just the war but also the climate crisis, Europe will rapidly phase out fossil fuels, and Russia will have permanently lost its traditional export market.

With so few other alternatives, will it even be possible to hold the country together? If Russian leaders cling to the delusion that they can revive the czarist imperial tradition, they will risk plunging Russia into a deep intellectual crisis. Without comprehensive political and economic modernization, the country – with its huge nuclear arsenal – will stagger dangerously into an uncertain future. We certainly cannot rule out the possibility that Russia – and thus also Europe – will experience a replay of the 1990s.

Western Europe will not have the option of ignoring the challenges to its east. Whatever happens there will directly affect everyone who shares the same continent. No longer can we afford to harbor starry-eyed illusions about global progress and our own place in the world. A Russia-size geopolitical “black hole” in Eastern Europe and North Asia does not bode well for anyone. Putin has destroyed more than even he probably expected.

After World War II, in the early years of the Cold War, Western European countries took their first steps toward ever-closer union. After the war in Ukraine, they must continue that tradition. Given the massive geopolitical challenges and security threats that Europe will face, it can no longer afford to exhibit any kind of weakness. The Old Continent must grow up – and quickly.

Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.

©Project Syndicate, 2023.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Sarah Zeines - Jamil Chade

Guest essay: Joschka Fischer

Edited by: Dan Wheeler