Written by Rabih Younes

The Swiss Higher Education System

Figure 1. Swiss Education System (Carmen Baumeler, 2014)


When talking about the Swiss higher education system to an audience that is more used to the American (or other) higher education system, one should first explain some contrast in definitions between the two. When looking at the Swiss education system as a whole, illustrated in Figure 1, we see that higher education as it is known is the U.S. is the equivalent of “Tertiary Level” education in Switzerland. Tertiary level education focuses on all types of majors related to the job market and academia. It prepares plumbers, doctors, artists, engineers, researchers, etc. Tertiary level education includes two categories: professional education and training (PET), and higher education. PET may be considered as the Swiss equivalent of community colleges in the U.S, however, it is considered as valuable as other types of higher education in Switzerland, in contrast to the case of community colleges in the U.S. (Confederation, 2017)

Higher education in Switzerland (tertiary-level A) is divided into three categories: universities of applied sciences (known as fachhochschulen, plural of fachhochschule) which offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees, universities of teacher education which offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and universities / federal institutes of technology which also offer Ph.D. and doctoral-level degrees in addition to their bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The main goal of a Swiss fachhochschule is to prepare students to meet the demands and expectations of the job market, while always collaborating with the job market and taking its feedback. The main goal of a Swiss university (or federal institute of technology) is to prepare strong academics that can conduct research to solve the world’s problems. The following are parts of mission statements from the different types of higher education institutions that help illustrate the goals of each type:

“ETH Zurich trains true experts and prepares its students to carry out their tasks as critical members of their communities, making an important contribution to the sustainable development of science, the economy and society […] committed to education, research, and services […] focus on the conservation of the Earth’s ecosystem for future generations […] committed to create Solutions to mankind’s most urgent problems — poverty, hunger, disease, the threat to our very existence due to the spread of human civilization.” – from ETH’s mission statement (ETH, 2014)

“The SUPSI mission is based on the needs of its stakeholders and on the ways in which these needs can be best met. This emphasises the double role played by the University with regard to its various partners in the territory: on the one hand, training professional workers, and on the other hand boosting competitive capacity by transferring the knowledge generated.” – from SUPSI’s mission statement (SUPSI, Mission)


Education in Higher Education Institutions

The two main entities in Swiss higher education, which are fachhochschulen and Universities, have different pedagogy and research styles due to the difference in the goals and missions of the two types of institutions.

Since the goal of fachhochschulen is to prepare students for the job market, they focus on giving them interactive hands-on classes where students apply what they learn on state-of-the-art technology. They are very industry-driven. They hire professors of practice from the industry who are not required to hold a Ph.D. degree. They also collect feedback from alumni and internship employers in order to keep their curriculum and practices in coherence with the job market’s demands. Fachhochschulen have a noticeable focus on the quality of teaching. Some fachhochschulen, such as SUPSI, require a mandatory pedagogical training that their professors should accomplish within the first three years of joining; this training is offered at the fachhochschule. The faculty to student ratio in such institution is usually very high, and the number of students in a classroom is small. Students are assessed based on a combination on exams and projects. The projects are usually with real partners in the industry. Fachhochschulen also try to emphasize on interdisciplinary work and push their students to start their own companies. This video is an interesting example about the education in a leading Swiss fachhochschule (SUPSI, Institutional video).

As for universities, they usually follow a traditional approach for pedagogy. Their main focus is research and academia. As mentioned earlier, they focus on being leading research institutes in the world that try to solve important problems such as hunger, poverty, sustainability, etc. The number of students in such institutions’ classrooms is usually very high, especially in first-year classes (200-300 students per class section). Students are mostly assessed base on exams (sometimes it is only a single comprehensive exam at the end of the course), while sometimes having projects. It is interesting to note that students in such institutions do not raise concerns about issues such that large classroom sizes and lecture-based teaching. Students do not even consider it to be a problem. Some students that I met were very excited because their professor gave them a 24-hours take-home exam instead of an in-class exam, while others were excited because they had an oral instead of a written exam. Professors in Swiss universities must hold a Ph.D. degree, and it is considered to be an honor for them when they teach classes, especially first-year classes.

Both types of higher education institutions focus on “soft skills”. They try to integrate those skills in their classes and projects, while some institutions have dedicated courses for this purpose. Also, both types use course feedback as the main criteria to assess courses and instructors.


Outcomes and Conclusions

When comparing different higher education systems, the outcomes of those systems are important measures to consider. For the Swiss higher education, the outcomes look attractive. In fachhochschulen, based on what was gathered from university officials, about 97% of their students find a job within a year after graduation. As for universities, the hiring ratio is about the same in addition to students getting very prestigious jobs. That led to universities like ETH Zurich to drastically increase their Ph.D. students’ stipends in order to be able to keep them in school instead of them getting hired by companies like Google right after their master’s. It is important to note that, fachhochschulen students could easily get a good job after getting their bachelor’s degree, while university students need to have a master’s degree to get a good job.

While getting a job is not a problem for students, other problems might arise. It was noticed that both fachhochschulen and universities require a heavy work load (research, projects, etc.) routine, which might put students under constant stress, keeping in mind that a lot of those institutions are some of the highest ranked in the world. In fact, some of the universities that we have visited have mentioned that this is an issue that a lot of their students experience, and they try to address it through counseling (UZH).


Carmen Baumeler, I. T. (2014). Tertiary education with high labour-market relevance – Swiss professional education and training. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from The BIBB: https://www.bibb.de/en/17764.php

Confederation, S. (2017). Higher Education and Research in Switzerland. Bern: State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI).

ETH. (2014, February). Mission statement. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from ETH Zurich: https://www.ethz.ch/en/the-eth-zurich/portrait/self-image-and-values/mission-statement.html

SUPSI. (n.d.). Institutional video. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from SUPSI: http://www.supsi.ch/home_en/supsi/video.html

SUPSI. (n.d.). Mission. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from SUPSI: http://www.supsi.ch/home_en/supsi/filosofia-istituzionale/missione.html

UZH. (n.d.). Dealing with Stress. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from UZH: http://www.pbs.uzh.ch/en/personalcounseling/umgangmitstress.html