GPP14: Day 2 – UZH, ETHZ, and the Swiss Education System

It seemed like a very long day, but yet it was over before we know it. Day 2 of GPP14 had a super packed itinerary, as we visited both University of Zurich (UZH) as well as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ). An interesting thing about these two vastly different higher educational institute is that they are literally across the street from each other in Zurich. In fact, when ETHZ was first founded, it shared facility with UZH. Of the two universities, UZH is the larger (the largest in Switzerland, in fact), more comprehensive university, while ETHZ is the prestigious technical school that is world renown in their engineering and natural science programs.

One of the main discussion topic we focused on during our visit to both institution was on the uniqueness of the Swiss educational system. One of the major differences between the Swiss educational system and the ones in other countries is the importance and respect they put in a vocational (or applied/professional) education route. In this route – which is actually what most Swiss youths would choose over what we would consider an academic university route – place a great emphasis on practical training and apprenticeship. After lower secondary education (similar to US junior high), if the student chooses the vocational route, they would enter an apprenticeship in an occupation of their choosing. Methods to determine admission to the apprenticeship varies from canton to canton, but usually some kind of entrance examination is involved. During the apprenticeship, the student would work for a few days out of a week, then go to school for a couple of days. This so-called dual system of vocational education enabled very hands on practical training. The closest approximation we have in the US is perhaps a co-op, but that really only exist in a higher education context.

I am curious on the historical context of such an apprenticeship educational model. The theory on how it works seems sound, and obviously it must work well since it’s been the norm in Switzerland for so many years. Is the development of such a system mostly cultural? I’m trying to imagine if the apprenticeship model would work in the US at all. We’ve had discussion both in the PFP and GEDI class about whether a college education is necessary for all youth to have a successful career. The perception, at least in my experience in the US, seems to overwhelmingly favor college education for career development. Whereas in Switzerland, only a small percentage of their youths would go to what we would consider a traditional college career. Making college education more accessible certainly does have its advantage, but does it also carries the risk of diluting the uniqueness of that experience and opportunity? On the other hand, one can also argue limiting college education to the elite is, well, elitist.

Moving forward to day 3, we will head on over to Strasbourg, France, and visit the University of Strasbourg. These are all questions and thought we need to keep in our minds.

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