In what fields are Swiss universities internationally competitive?

Students from abroad elect to study natural sciences, maths and statistics in Switzerland. Keystone

Can Switzerland really compete with the US and UK when it comes to subject areas sought after by international students? 

This content was published on October 24, 2018 - 17:00
Tony Ganzer, Geraldine Wong Sak Hoi and Leo Shearmur

International students seem to be following in Albert Einstein’s famous footsteps when it comes to choosing a course of study in Switzerland. In 1900 the German-born future Nobel Prize winner graduated from Zurich’s Polytechnic Institute, now the Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZExternal link), with a diploma in mathematics and natural sciences. Today, students from abroad still elect to study natural sciences, maths and statistics ahead of other fields and this at three times the rateExternal link of locals, according to the OECD. 

In Switzerland, the ETHZ and the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFLExternal link) consistently rank among the top universities worldwide for maths, physics, chemistry and computer science. International students account for more than a third of the student bodyExternal link at the ETHZ and about halfExternal link of enrollment at the EPFL. But whereas Einstein in his time at the polytechnic was preoccupied with theories on electromagnetic fields, a senior administrator at the EPFL recently told Swiss public television RTSExternal link that subjects like machine learning and artificial intelligence are becoming increasingly popular today. 

The UK offers a lot of more choice. Boasting some of the world’s oldest universities, British higher education institutions still produce some of the most cited academic texts in the world and are at the forefront of research in virtually every subject or discipline.  

At postgraduate level, subject specialisation becomes increasingly necessary and central to the development of one’s career, professional or academic. The decision which university you should apply to and enroll at will in all likelihood be framed by the exact nature of your studies and the particular approach you wish to take. It is therefore advisable to research into the various postgraduate programs on offer to see which one corresponds to your own personal interests and future plans.   

Like in most other countries, the majority of British universities do not have a specialisation, like the London School of Economics and Social Sciences (LSE) or Imperial College, a science focused university based in London. Instead, British universities offer courses in most subjects, the best distinguishing themselves by being able to offer a level of excellence across all disciplines.  

Of the 135’000 non-European postgraduate students that the UK welcomes each year about a third of them pursue business and managerial studies. Other popular areas of study include engineering and technology (12%), social sciences (10%), computer science (5%), and law (4%). (Figures taken from HESAExternal link statistics 2016/17). 

Like the UK, U.S. higher education institutions often place high in international rankings, but international students have clear preferences for areas of study.  Engineering, Business and Management, and Math and Computer Science are the run-away top three fields of study for 21.4%, 18.6%, and 15.5% of international students coming to the U.S. respectively, according to the 2017 Open Doors reportExternal link

As mentioned earlier in this comparison series, most of those students are from China and IndiaExternal link, and there are clear study priorities for each set of students. Most Chinese students (23.1%) study Business, with 18.7% studying Engineering. Students from India are mostly (36.2%) studying Engineering, though Computer Science is a close second (35.4%). 

Top of the lot

The two Swiss federal institutes may often steal the science and tech limelight, but like them all 10 other universities in Switzerland also benefit from public funding and place strong emphasis on research and research-based teaching. It’s no surprise then that other schools too do well in the natural and life sciences. The University of Geneva, which claims close to 40% of its graduate student body as international, is in the top 50 schools worldwide for mathsExternal link; indeed, overall foreigners make up slightly more than halfExternal link of enrollment in the sciences at the French-speaking institution. The University of Bern lands in the top 150 for physicsExternal link as well as for medicineExternal link

But Swiss universities have other strengths besides the sciences. In Geneva, it is theology at the bachelor’s level (40%) and translation as a master’s (60%) that win for the highest proportion of international students. Other subjects that attract a fair share of non-Swiss for graduate studies include commodities trading and global health, the university’s statistics office told 

At the University of Zurich, which landed in the top 100External link of the latest Times Higher Education rankings, non-Swiss students make up a large proportion of enrollmentExternal link in economics and veterinary studies at the doctorate level. And in Italian-speaking Switzerland, the most popular facultiesExternal link among international students (many of them from neighbouring Italy), who far outnumber localsExternal link at the Università della Svizzera italiana (USI), include architecture, communications and economics. 

In the UK, a glance at the QS Top UniversitiesExternal link and THE World University RankingsExternal link reveals charts are topped by the usual suspects. In 2018, the best places to study engineering and technology courses were Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, Edinburgh, and UCL. For computer science, it was the same institutions ranked in a different order. For social sciences it was only marginally different: Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, UCL, and KCL.   

These universities are notoriously competitive and difficult to get in to and do not adequately describe the bulk of international student experience. If one takes a look at the most popular universities by subject for international students a different picture emerges. (Source: The Complete University GuideExternal link). For example, the most popular institutions for computer science were UCL, Liverpool, Manchester, Coventry, and Imperial. The best places to study business and management studies in the UK might be Cambridge, Oxford, and the LSE, but the most popular courses were at Coventry, Cardiff Metropolitan, and Brunel. This alternative list might not reflect working rankings, but it does suggest a wider popularity and satisfaction that exists at other universities in Britain.    

In the US, most students are attending doctorate-awarding universitiesExternal link with high levels of research activity, but the list of top institutions hosting international students is diverse in style and geography, with universities in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Tempe (near Phoenix) rounding out the top five school locations. These locations make sense when looking at institutions leading those top study areas, too. Top-rankedExternal link engineering school MIT is near Boston, for example, but others are close to the heart of Silicon Valley and a hub of Computer Science research and innovation with Stanford and UC Berkeley.  Top-ranked business programsExternal link can be found at Harvard—again Boston—but also the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania. 

With a university system as big and well-attended as in the United States, international students can feel equally overwhelmed by the options, perhaps, but also given opportunities to factor in cost, geographic preference, and specialty of study at world-class institutions in just about any field of study. 

This article is part of a seriesExternal link that compares the university system in the US, UK and Switzerland. Topics covered are based on questions sent in by readers.

Our correspondents

Tony Ganzer is an American journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio who lived and worked in Switzerland for many years. He will help examine the American university system for this series. 

Geraldine Wong Sak Hoi, a Canadian journalist based in Switzerland, will report on the Swiss university system for this series. She is also involved in fact-checking projects for

Leo Shearmur is a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford and has lived and studied in the UK and Switzerland. He will report on the British educational system of this series.

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