By Veronika Ostapcuk


From elite to masses – what next?

Some of the key changes in higher education in the 20th century have been driven by what is often termed as massification – i.e. the move from a system that served only a small group of rich elite to the one in which every member of our society should have access to. In the most of the developed countries up to 40% of students attend higher education institutions and many governments aim at increasing this number to 50-60% in the upcoming years. The Global Perspective Program provided us with a unique chance to learn, and eventually be able to compare, about two higher education systems in detail: Swiss and US.


Higher education system in Switzerland

In Switzerland, everyone has a free access to all levels of education, from primary to tertiary/higher education. To achieve this, education and affiliated institutions are in hands of the government. The best universities in Switzerland are public, funded on cantonal and/or federal level, and university students pay only minimal fee, maximum of 2,000CHF (=2,000$) per academic year. For the orientation, the median Swiss salary in 2010 was 71,000CHF per year (Source: FOS), with student jobs being paid as well as 20-30CHF per hour, allowing students to self-support themselves during their studies, therefore reducing chances of being excluded from attending higher education due to the financial difficulties.

The higher education in Switzerland does not comprise of cantonal and federal universities only, but also universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen), universities of teacher education (Pädagogische Hochschulen), and, as an alternative to the traditional academic institutions, institutions providing professional education and training (PET). These are aimed at people with vocational matura/professional experience, further training them and providing them with a specialist education and additional qualifications. It comprises diplomas from a PET college and federal or advanced federal PET diplomas. Interestingly, students with a general high school certificate (Matura) are free to study any subject of their choice at cantonal and federal universities without the necessity of taking additional tests and showing knowledge of the particular subjects, allowing all students following their passions. The exception to this are medical schools, which are regulated, and where special entrance exams have to be taken.

The graduation rate at tertiary education level comes to over 45%, with about roughly two-thirds of the students gaining a university degree and one-third a degree in higher professional education and training. What makes Swiss education special, is that compared to other developed countries, where higher education graduation is also about 35-45%, is that thanks to the vocational training education system (secondary level), majority of the students in Switzerland end up working in their field of study, and youth unemployment rate is extremely low.


Higher education system in USA

Compared to the most higher education systems in Europe, higher education system in the US is highly independent of the government, and the best universities in the country are in fact private. There are different types of higher education institutions: public and private universities and colleges, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges.

In order to enroll to the higher education institution in the US, students have to take the standardized tests (SAT or ACT), which test general ability to study at colleges but also individual subjects knowledge. Unlike in Europe, being a good student and scoring high in standardized tests is not enough, and in order to be accepted in the top institutions, one has to show significant extracurricular involvement, e.g. sports, volunteering, science competitions, working in local newspaper or radio. As in Switzerland, students are free to choose their field of study freely without major limitations, at least at the undergraduate level. Once a student passes all necessary requirements and lands an offer from her/his dream college, another obstacle comes, the tuition.

The tuition ranges from 2,000 to 5,000$ for community college, 10,000 to 35,000$ for public universities, and 30,000 to 60,000$ for private universities. Median salary in USA in 2010 was 26,400$ (Source: SSA). For comparison, University of Chicago which ranked similarly as ETH Zurich according to QS World Ranking Universities, has a tuition of 54,000$ compared to 1,600$ at ETH. The students in the US do not have the possibility of vocational training at the secondary level, as it is the case in Switzerland, and in order to obtain specialized training and qualification, they have no other choice than paying high sums for the higher education.

There are more than 1.4 trillion US dollars in student loan debt with 44 million borrowers who finish their studies with average debt of 37,000$. Apart of starting the “adult” life and career with a major debt, fresh graduates also very often end up working outside of their field of study, often even in the positions, which in many countries would not require bachelors degree. This of course questions if this model of higher education is beneficial to individual students and to the society as a whole. The student who would be provided with one year training to become, lets say HR or sales person, would start working at the age of 19, earning salary, paying taxes, pension fund, contributing to the society and having no or minimal debt. The same person alternatively takes a loan to attend the university, takes on average 5 years to finish, and only then starts to work as HR or sales person; 5 years older but 40,000$ poorer, plus we should not forget all the additional financial support required from the family.


Which model is better and what is next?

In order to be able to compare the two systems, one has to ask what the purpose of higher education is. Is it the public good? Is it the welfare of individual? How are the two connected? What was the intent of massification of higher education?

Growing up in Europe, I have a strong sense and need of social equality, which I believe leads to better functioning societies. I believe in education for a public good, which is achieved by equal chances of all individuals.

The economical definition of public good is: a commodity or service that is provided without profit to all members of a society, either by the government or by a private individual or organization. By this definition both systems, Swiss and US, serve public good. However, if we do not look at public good as an economic issue, but human one, the definition suddenly changes to: the benefit or well-being of the public. Here we can clearly challenge both systems. First the high tuition and debts in the US clearly exclude many individuals, and do not benefit society. And second the complete freedom of choice of study subject in both systems does not necessarily benefit society either. The most popular study subjects across the world are business and economics. But does this reflect what we need as a society? Most growing and required fields are actually nursing, medical equipment, computing science and engineering.

How to find the compromise between giving students chance to study what they are passionate about and navigating them into the majors we need as a society? We can take an example from Scandinavia where predictions are made about the future needs, and the funds from government are distributed accordingly. As a result, there are fewer positions for enrollment in over-studied or not required majors, and more in the majors, which we need as a society. Alternatively, there could be special scholarships, from both government and companies, supporting students to study the majors we lack as a society. This of course can work only if the government has an impact on the higher education, like in Switzerland. In the US, however, this is highly unlikely as even public universities are getting less and less funding, and move towards private model of functioning. This is unlikely to change in the upcoming years, and perhaps solution would be rather to set up vocational training, supported by individual states and local companies.

If no changes are made, and we let higher education to become less and less funded by government and more and more depended on tuition fees, we might end up back where we started – higher education for privileged only, and that does not sound as a public good.