University reforms cause headaches for some

Are Swiss students being prepared for real world challenges? Keystone

Ten years after the Swiss and Europeans embarked on university reforms, the Bologna Process continues to raise questions of flexibility in higher-education.

This content was published on September 1, 2010 - 14:25

Professors, doctoral candidates and students recently gathered in Zurich at the Conference of Rectors of Swiss Universities (Crus) to discuss problems with the newest degree – a bachelors – that caps three years of study.

“We have been better than other countries at formally implementing the reforms,” said Antonio Lopreino, president of the conference and Basel University rector. But, he added, the Swiss have fallen behind in the debate over those reforms.

Theoretically a bachelors degree should allow students to enter the professional world but in practice many employers still want a masters. That is because the three-year degree is often designed only for continuing on to a masters degree, meaning some bachelors students—particularly engineers—leave underprepared.

Romina Loliva is a member of the executive committee of the Swiss Student Union. For her, the bachelors degree should have never been separated from the pursuit of a masters, which typically takes about five years of study to earn.

“It’s a little bit schizophrenic in Switzerland to have separated a bachelors from a masters, arbitrarily, because it is a cumulative process of education and it is normal to continue once you’re over the initial hurdle,” she told Another issue: “Every school defines the bachelors degree differently.”

Difficult path

The Bologna Process was designed, in part, to facilitate moving from one country to the next for study within a greater European system.

That has raised some problems in places like Switzerland, where higher education is carried out at three different types of schools: universities, specialised technical institutions and teacher training colleges, each with various requirements.

“The differences between bachelors degrees makes moving between institutions very difficult,” Loliva said. “We need some harmonisation measures, all the while respecting the specificities. It is a difficult path; it's true.”

Loprieno does not believe an automatic and mandatory recognition of other institution’s degrees is acceptable. “That would be the worst thing for mobility,” he said. “This dictate has resulted in protection mechanisms. That doesn’t work.”

For Martine Rahier, Neuchâtel University rector and Bologna Process delegation member, transferring from one school to another is linked to an issue of transparency among institutions.

Degrees as brands

Danielle Chaperon, vice chancellor of Lausanne University, says there is another “flaw” as well, this one concerning masters degrees.

“They’ve become brands, almost luxury goods, that universities want to use to stand out,” she said. “Suddenly, they’re designing bachelors that lead students to pursue their studies locally, hindering mobility.”

Lolive says placing an emphasis on masters degrees is a “back door” way of introducing a selection process. How? The bachelor degree is supposed to open paths to a masters for everyone. But “specialised” masters degrees, which require special skills, are becoming more commonplace.

Rahier does not believe that students pursuing bachelors degrees are being neglected.

“But it is true that an excellent bachelors programme seldom figures into the arguments of a university’s attractiveness compared with a masters offering," she said.

Point system

Another problem, according to Nicole Rege-Colet, director of the Swiss Italian professional university department in Locarno, is a shift toward a credit system, much like the one used at universities in the United States.

Under the Bologna Process, one year of study in a bachelors programme is worth 60 points. “Students say, ‘I have 180 points, I want my bachelors’,” she said. “We must fight against this capitalist vision of university training that consists of collecting points like [baseball cards].”

As for workload, students complain once again about a lack of transparency and few ways to measure the workload and exactly what they have to do to be successful, Lolive said.

Ariane Gigon in Zurich, (Translated from French by Tim Neville)

Bologna Process

The Bologna Process was launched in 1999 by 29 European countries, including Switzerland, this process now has 47 participating countries.

The reform was initiated in the universities between 2001 and 2005.
In the fall semester for the year 2009/10, all students beginning their studies at a Swiss technical university began in a bachelor's programme (including medicine) and 90% of university students were following a bachelors or masters.

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In Switzerland, a student who completes high school and passes the final exams has access to the country’s university system. But the rate of students who get that far is low (20%). Among those who do, however, 90% go on to get a university masters degree.

At applied science institutions, most students end their education with a bachelors. Just 16% of students go on to get a masters.

About one in three master students in 2008 received a bachelors degree at another school, often in another country (20%).

In 2008, only 4% of those entering a masters programme had received a bachelors in another field.

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