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

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 transations 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 term 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.”