Vocational training drives tertiary qualification rise in Switzerland

The increase in tertiary attainment has been especially strong among women Keystone / Martin Ruetschi

The proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with a tertiary qualification has doubled in Switzerland within 20 years, and at faster pace than many other countries, according to an OECD study. A key factor in this: Swiss-style higher vocational training and degrees for apprentices.

This content was published on October 4, 2022 minutes

Educational attainment has been increasing throughout the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in particular at tertiary level, its Education at a Glance 2022External link report published on Monday found.

Between 2000 and 2021, the share of 25-34 year-olds with tertiary attainment increased on average by 21 percentage points. In Switzerland, the share increased “at an even faster pace”, by 27 percentage points (from 26% in 2000 to 52% in 2021), the OECD said.

“The dramatic rise in educational attainment is providing a unique opportunity to fuel economic and social progress in our countries,” OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said in a statementExternal link. “It is essential that countries continue to innovate and improve their education systems to ensure that everyone benefits from the advantages of a good education and acquires the skills they need to succeed.”

An important driver behind the increase in tertiary attainment are the labour-market advantages that it brings, the report authors wrote. These include a lower average unemployment rate and a higher earning power for those with tertiary attainment compared with their peers with upper secondary or below upper secondary attainment. The increase in tertiary attainment was especially strong among women, the OECD study said.

Swiss case

In Switzerland, tertiary education is wide: it includes not just universities, but also higher-level vocational qualifications, which can be taken after an apprenticeship (the route taken by two thirds of young people leaving school). This form of professional education is a Swiss speciality, but its programmes and qualifications are less known abroad.

“Including this ‘professional education’ among the tertiary level diplomas boosts our levels,” said Juerg Schweri, a professor at the Swiss Federal University for Vocational Education and Training (SFUVETExternal link). “Of course, these professional education diplomas are generally of high quality and prepare for management positions (mostly in small and medium-sized enterprises) so it is not window-dressing,” he told SWI

Switzerland is one of the 14 OECD countries where at least half of 25-34 year-olds have a tertiary education.

A point worth noting, he said, was that in most countries, tertiary vocational degrees were for people with a general education who want to train in a certain occupational area before entering the labour market. In Switzerland, however, tertiary professional education is for those who already have occupational skills and market experience, but who want to extend, deepen or supplement this (for example, a carpenter to gain commercial skills).

Special universities

A second reason for the high level and particularly for the rise in tertiary-level education are the industry-oriented universities of applied sciences (UAS), which are part of the university sector along with traditional universities and universities of teacher education, he added.

UAS offer Bachelor and Master degrees. Their main target group are also graduates of vocational education, Schweri explained. To get into an UAS, apprentices need to take an additional qualification, the vocational baccalaureate.

“The baseline is that in Switzerland, with its high share of apprenticeships on upper secondary level, increases in tertiary attainment can only be achieved by creating educational pathways from vocational training to tertiary education,” remarked Schweri.

He added that while the OECD study found that tertiary education offered better employment prospects, it did not mean that general (university) education beats vocational education. Schweri was one of the authors of a studyExternal link last year which found – in the Swiss context – that people who started out as apprentices and added a tertiary degree had the highest degree of labour market participation and the lowest rate of unemployment.

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