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Noha ElSherbiny

Noha ElSherbiny is a fourth year PhD student in Computer Science at Virginia Tech, from Alexandria, Egypt and is part of the Virginia Tech, Middle East and North Africa (VT-MENA) program. More about Noha...

“Culture” refers to the institutional culture. From my observations, the culture at the institution plays a large role in determining how and whether it will provide support.Noha

Academic support refers to a variety of services, resources and methods that are available to students to assist them in succeeding in school [1]. After being exposed to the wide variety of services available at Virginia Tech, I was curious to learn whether these services exist in Swiss institutions and how.


Many American Institutions have adopted the approach of holistic education. Holistic education is concerned with the development of a student intellectually, emotionally, socially, physically, and spiritually[2]. The college experience is an opportunity for students to find identity and purpose in life by interacting with the community. Educational institutions are not just preparing students for academic success, but to also enable them to become lifelong learners. Based on this approach, American Institutions take the responsibility of providing a holistic educational environment on their campuses[3]. Recognizing that students come from various backgrounds and face various challenges that affect their educational experience, Institutions provide guidance to their students through their academic support services.

Academic support encompasses a broad array of enrichment programs. These can be provided to a certain population such as special-education students. They can also be a requirement by state of federal law, for example providing services for students with disabilities[1]. Or simply, the institution may create support programs to address specific performance results.

Academic support programs can be created based on identified learning needs. In response the institution can provide supplemental instruction, and guidance to students who are struggling academically.

Academic Support in Swiss Higher Education Institutions

In Swiss higher education institutions there is a movement towards providing more supportive services to students. It was very difficult to generalize how academic support services are available in Swiss institutions; it differed from one to another. For example, at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ), university officials were proud of their career services center for students. At the University of Basel (Unibas) there is an equal opportunity services office, a disabilities office and a female mentoring services office. At the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI), they provide accommodation to students who have military service, they provide day care and career services for their students. While at Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) and University of Zurich the officials I spoke with did not know of any academic support services being provided at their institutions. After studying the university websites, the University of Zurich website mentioned counseling services, financial aid and student advising available to their students. USI website mentioned career services, child care services and legal services being available to their students

From the conversations, observations and studying the institutions’ webpages, I’ve concluded that culture, campus-life and the different student populations play a role in how academic support services are provided in Swiss institutions and US institutions.

1. Cultural Institutional Differences

“Culture” refers to the institutional culture. From my observations, the culture at the institution plays a large role in determining how and whether it will provide support.

At American Institutions, the type of academic support services varies very little from institution to institution. I compared three different institutions’ academic support websites to analyze what services are available. I chose Massachusetts Institution of Technology (MIT), Virginia Tech, and Howard Community College, because they cover state schools, private schools, and different tiers. All of the institutions mention the same services; academic services, personal support, spiritual support services for students with disabilities. Some differences include: a stronger emphasis on retention services at Howard Community College, a stronger emphasis on international student services at MIT and a stronger emphasis on veteran services at VT. This could be attributed to the difference in the student populations, as well as the institution’s culture.

At Swiss Institutions, the type of academic support services varies greatly from institution to institution. I noticed that most universities visited provided minimal academic support services to students. The institutional culture at these universities is that people go to university to earn a degree, and the university is not responsible for the personal life a student. The institutions expect the students to be able to compartmentalize, and that their personal affairs should not intervene with their academics. While on a visit to ETHZ, a staff member at the university explained to us that at their university there’s a clear distinction between being a student and life outside the university. This was also re-emphasized by the Vice Rector for the International Office at Unibas, Professor Hedwig Kaiser, who mentioned that they provide minimal support. The students need to learn to manage their lives, and every discipline has a person to support students academically.

This is the culture of the federal and cantonal universities we visited (ETHZ, Unibas, University of Zurich and USI). However the technical colleges or universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschule) such as SUPSI and University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) have a different culture. SUPSI provided the most varied services, and speaking with faculty members and university officials, they voiced their interest in their students becoming life long learners. SUPSI officials are aware that their students’ personal lives can affect their academic progress, they provide various services to help their students. For example, a distance-learning department was introduced as well as the possibility for students to earn flexible degrees.

2. Student Populations

From my observations, I could see that the student populations that attended the institution played a role in what type of services are provided.
As mentioned previously at American Institutions, the type of academic support services varies very little from institution to institution. I think the emphasis on different programs at the Massachusetts Institution of Technology (MIT), Virginia Tech, and Howard Community College, might be related to the different student populations at the institutions. For example, only Virginia Tech mentioned veteran services. This could be because of the CORPS of Cadets and that Virginia Tech has a large veterans population[4]. Similarly, MIT has a strong emphasis on international students support services because 29.12% of their student population are international students[5] while at Virginia Tech only 9.6% of the student population is international[4].

swiss-ed-policyAt Swiss Institutions, the student populations vary greatly. At the universities we visited the undergraduate students were of ages 18-22, graduate students were 22-30 years old. When asking a University of Zurich official whether it was common to find a non-traditional student (students that had worked for a few years then returned to get a Bachelors, Masters or PhD degree), the official responded saying it was very rare. The Swiss educational system requires students to select a “track” after primary school (6th grade). From figure 1, the university track involves going through pre-school, primary school, (higher track of) lower secondary level, matura schools and then university. The technical track is similar to the university track where students attend pre-school, primary school, and (medium-level) lower secondary level but students would then go to a vocational school and start their apprenticeship. Students who wish to get Bachelors, Masters and/or PhD degree at a traditional university all go through the same process while students who wish to get an apprenticeship and higher professional degrees go to different higher education institutions. Whereas at the technical colleges (higher vocational education), at universities of applied science (Fachhochschule) and at teacher training colleges, students could be non-traditional students, returning to further their education after a few years of work, this is rarely the case in the university track. Therefore, the types of services provided at the Fachhochschule would be different than at universities. For example, SUPSI provided distance learning and flexible degrees to accommodate full-time employees while ETHZ focused on career services.

3. Campus-life

At US institutions campuses play a role in the shaping of the student’s college experience. While it doesn’t seem to affect the type of academic support services available, it might impact how often students would use them.
In Switzerland, I noticed that campus had an effect on the type of academic support services provided. In the universities we visited, the students indicated that they lived off campus and commuted. The majority of the university campuses we visited were in cities and different colleges were dispersed with in the city. ETHZ Science City was the one university with the strongest campus feel. Students expressed how they enjoyed coming to the campus, hanging out and how highly involved they were with student governance. Interestingly enough, ETHZ’s website boasted having a strong athletics program which was never mentioned on any other university website.


There is a difference in the approach to providing academic support systems in Swiss and US higher education institutions. Many factors seem to affect the nature of services provided. The institutional culture, student demographics and campus life affect the academic support services available to the students.

The general Swiss approach remains that minimal support will be provided to students, the rest are “personally solvable”. With the influx of migrants to Europe and the increasing number of refugees, it seems that Swiss institutions may be forced to re-think their approach to supporting their students. Rector Antonio Loprieno from the University of Basel, admitted that there are social issues universities in Switzerland will have to face. He pointed out that Germany has started providing support to their first generation students (students from immigrant families).


  1. Reform, T.G.o.E. Academic Support. 2013 29/08/2013.
  2. Forbes, S.H., Values in Holistic Education, in Third Annual Conference on ‘Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child’. 1996.
  3. Miller, R., What are schools for: holistic education in American culture. 1990: Holistic Education Press. 175.
  4. Tech, V. Facts and Figures 2015. 2015; Available from: https://www.vt.edu/about/facts-figures-2015.pdf.
  5. MIT, I.S.O.a. General Statistics 2014-2015. 2015; Available from: http://web.mit.edu/iso/stats_14-15/general.shtml.
  6. Business, F.S.o. Swiss Education System. Available from: http://www.fhnw.ch/business/about-us/fhnw-1/swiss-education-system.