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Your education questions answered Is it possible to study in Switzerland as a returning expat Swiss?

lecture

Students attending a psychology lecture at the University of Zurich 

(© Keystone / Gaetan Bally)

You asked: “What options do young expatriate Swiss have if they want to continue their education in Switzerland?” The answer is many, but there are challenges along the way.

This summer we’ve been asking readers to submit their questions on Swiss education: so far, we’ve answered the queries on teaching with a foreign qualification and if you can study after doing an apprenticeship.

Our latest story was mainly prompted by a query about what educational options were open to a 13-year-old Swiss Abroad returning home. To answer this, we turned to educationsuisseexternal link, which, among other things, advises young Swiss Abroadexternal link about education in Switzerland.

(Kai Reusser / swissinfo.ch)

Language an issue

A 13-year-old is obliged and has the right to attend a free local school (Swiss compulsory schooling ends at age 15-16), explained educationsuisse director Barbara Sulzer Smith.

“Obviously it depends very much on the language level: so, if the level of German is sufficient, then the pupil would go straight to school. But if it’s not - and this is typical for Switzerland - every canton has its own language support programme,” she told swissinfo.ch.

This can be extra language classesexternal link (language depends on the canton) during the school week or separate classes over a period of time to prepare new arrivals for school. Note: cantons oversee education matters, hence the differences across the country.

Career choice early on

At around the age of 14-15, pupils in the Swiss system usually make a choice about what to do next: this can be a baccalaureate school which prepares them for university or an apprenticeship – which two-thirds of school leavers opt for.

+ Read more about the challenges of making this choice here

+ Why the Swiss apprenticeship system is so popular   

This decision can be a challenge as some Swiss Abroad - some of whom might never have visited the country of their forebears - are not always aware of how the Swiss education systems works, Sulzer Smith said.

Educationsuisse advises pupils to speak to their potential local education authorities as well as contact the local careers advisory service to gain a picture of all the options.

And if you are older?

The organisation also helps those who want to attend university or training after completing compulsory schooling in their homelands.

“We have lots of kids from South America, or even Spain or Italy, where there is a lot of unemployment, who want to do an education here to have better prospects for the future,” Sulzer Smith said. Again, knowing the language is key, especially as university courses in English are rare. It’s also possible to attend a baccalaureate school, but if you’ve been to an American high school, you might well have to take an extra entry exam.

Universities of Applied Science, which are more practically-orientated with courses like aviation or hotel management, can be a good option, Sulzer Smith added. A lot of people from abroad are, however, unaware of this option.

+ Understanding Switzerland’s university system

Finances, numbers

Finances can be an issue for the Swiss Abroad, especially as the cost of living is so high in Switzerland. Here young people can apply, with educationsuisse’s support, for a scholarship/ subsidyexternal link from their home canton and/or from various foundations. Currently there are 135 students with cantonal subsidies who went through educationsuisse. The organisation fields around 1,000 education enquiries a year.

Although no official statistics exist, the number of young Swiss Abroadexternal link who come to study in Switzerland is likely to be higher as there are some who don’t go through educationssuisse.

The university student

Katia Steinfeld, who grew up in Rio de Janeiro to a Brazilian father and Swiss mother, decided to finish her medical studies in Switzerland. Educationsuisse guided her through the medical school transfer and scholarship process from Brazil to Switzerland and she is now in her fourth year of study at the University of Lausanne. She has also set up a non-profit organisation, Escolharesexternal link, to provide eye examinations and glasses to children in Rio.

Katia Steinfeld

(Courtesy Katia Steinfeld)

“The main reason for coming was to study, since the quality/price ratio of university in Switzerland is very good,” Steinfeld said in email comments, adding that research opportunities were good as well.

+ University fees are relatively low in Switzerland

“I also wanted to have the experience of living outside Brazil and wished to learn more about Swiss culture as it’s part of my roots,” she said.

The main challenges were adapting to the different way of life, not being able to speak German, which Steinfeld feels limits possibilities in Switzerland, and the high cost of living. But Steinfeld feelsexternal link that overall the experience has been a most valuable one.

The apprentice

Erick Huber, now in the third year of his federal VET diplomaexternal link as a gardener (production), has also faced financial challenges.

His great-grandfather emigrated to Colombia in the early 1900s to help build roads as a civil engineer, later becoming a Swiss consul in Cali. “My family stayed there for three generations, until I decide to search for a better future in Switzerland,” Huber explained in an email.

Erick Huber

(Courtesy Erick Huber)

Huber saw few prospects in his country of birth, despite having a scholarship to a university in Colombia. Using his Swiss passport, he travelled to Switzerland and enrolled in an intensive German course, intending to go to university. But his high school qualification was not accepted, hence the move to an apprenticeship. “Fortunately, university is not the only way to become a professional,” Huber said.

Huber received a scholarship from his home canton to help with living costs. He receives an apprentice’s wage, but unlike Swiss apprentices, he can’t benefit from living at home or other parental financial support. And the future? “I intend to stay here in Switzerland, where I know my hard work will be appreciated,” he said.

For more on education, head to our education dossier.external link

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