Think tank: Swiss higher ed needs reform

The ETH Zurich regularly gains high ratings in worldwide university rankings Keystone

Swiss universities need to be more efficient if they are to compete internationally, says think tank Avenir Suisse. Regional aspirations have taken priority over excellence, threatening standards, it warns.

This content was published on February 27, 2018

The independent free-market group of experts is quick to point out that Switzerland is not doing too badly higher-education-wise.

“If you take the Times Higher Education university rankings, there are six Swiss universities among the top 150 ranked universities and if you take into account how many students in Switzerland actually study at one of these six universities, then its almost 40%, which is very high compared with the United States, for example,” Matthias Ammann, a fellow at Avenir SuisseExternal link, told

For example, the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) was ranked No. 1 in continental Europe in this survey and 10th overall.

But this excellence has come at a price, argues the think tank in its recently published study “Academic Excellence, not Regional Politics in Swiss Universities”.External link Public spending on higher education has risen by 70% since 2000 and Switzerland spends nearly the most per head on education worldwide, it says.

These investments were driven by increased international competition but other areas need funding as well, like health, says co-author Ammann. “Our study is not about saving money or shrinking the budget in education, it’s about questioning higher education system’s efficiency,” he stressed.

Mushrooming universities

Avenir Suisse points to a mushrooming of higher education institutes in Switzerland in recent years as regions and cantons who are largely responsible for education in Switzerland - try to get a piece of the education (funding) pie or seek prestige.

This has “prompted duplication, and regional aspirations have taken priority over excellence in education – threatening standards”, the 96-page report warns.

Switzerland now has 38 institutes of higher education over 80 locations – for a population of 8.2 million - with some nearby universities offering very similar courses to each other, says the think tank.

Avenir Suisse has therefore come up with a ten-point planExternal link to show how Swiss universities’ international competitiveness could be improved. This includes giving universities more “operational and strategic flexibility, with less political meddling” and greater ability to access outside funding, but with transparency over the contracts.

Funding and fees

Private funding has in the past caused some controversy in Switzerland, such as when the University of Zurich in 2012 signed a multimillion-franc sponsoring agreement with bank UBS. The university was later obliged to publish its once secret contract following furore over the deal.

+ Read more about controversy over university sponsorship deals here

Avenir Suisse also believes that student fees should be “significantly higher”. It costs just CHF580External link (CHF620) per semester to study at ETH Zurich. “Students don’t really have an awareness of how much their education costs, which leads to false incentives. The dropout rate is fairly high,” Ammann said.

The think tank is not however advocating an “Anglo-Saxon route” of study fees (tuition fees are $43,280 (CHF41,000) per year at Harvard). “If you have higher fees, you have to make sure everyone who wants or is able to go to university is financially able to do that,” added Ammann.


What do the universities themselves make of the plan? Their umbrella organisation, swissuniversities, said via email that it welcomed Avenir Suisse’s positive assessment of Swiss higher education, the result of wide-ranging modernisation – and it agreed that “the permanent striving towards optimisation must continue”.

But it said the economy was not the only factor for assessing quality. “Freedom of teaching and research is the prerequisite for innovation and wealth. This is how Swiss higher education contributes to society, politics, culture and the economy,” said secretary general Martina Weiss.

Avenir Suisse’s suggestions come as a packet, she added. At the moment, universities and cantonal and federal authorities work together in developing and managing the higher education system. The political decision process takes into account achieving goals and possible measures. “In this sense, swissuniversities welcomes Avenir Suisse’s study as a contribution to the discussion,” Weiss said.

Students too

For its part, the Swiss Students Union said that any changes made in future to keep Swiss higher education’s good position internationally must be made in a responsible way. Teaching content and institutional focus should not be driven by “private industry interests and dependences,” the union’s co-president Jonas Schmidt said in written comments.

Fees are a key issue - the organisation has been campaigning against this for some time. There are moves in this direction: the ETH Zurich and its counterpart in Lausanne, the EPFL, have said that they would like to increase tuition fees by CHF500External link over a two-year period from autumn 2019. A definitive decision could be made in spring 2018.

Schmidt said that most students already had part-time jobs during their studies, which can be an additional burden on students and lead to them taking longer to complete their studies.

Some young people might be put off by higher study fees because of the risk of debt. “This would mean a loss of young researchers and well-educated workers for Switzerland,” Schmidt said. This is why his organisation was against any raising of fees.

Higher ed institutes – what type?

Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne: internationally renowned, mainly technical universities

Universities: cantonally run, offering general academic education, with some universities being specialised e.g. St Gallen for business

Universities of applied sciences: technical and vocational training universities for which you don’t need a matura (high school certificate) but a federal vocational baccalaureate (Berufsmaturität or maturité professionnelle) that you can get as an apprentice

Universities of teacher education: training from preschool to upper secondary level, plus for remedial and special needs.

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