Swiss perspectives in 10 languages

Are Swiss universities failing students?

Most university students in Switzerland leave after their first year.

Switzerland's universities may be prestigious, but statistics show they produce fewer graduates than many other European countries.

Officials say as many as 50 per cent of Swiss university students fail to complete their degree.

Higher education is regarded as a right in Switzerland, and normally no entrance exam is required to start a degree programme.

Consequently, lecturers are often confronted with two or three times the number of students they anticipated would enrol.

They complain that lectures of up to 700 significantly undermine the students’ quality of learning.

“It’s a very severe issue and if you talk to any professor today they will tell you that this is the biggest problem – how do you teach a class with 500 students?” Lausanne University professor Stéphane Garelli told swissinfo.

“How can you have interaction? How can you pay attention to the needs of everyone? This is really the big issue.”

Lausanne University student Marc Posso found the big class sizes and impersonal teaching style in his first year difficult to cope with.

“We were about 500 students altogether and there were just too many people, so many had to sit on the stairs of lecture halls. We had to go to class early to find a place, so it was pretty tough,” he said.

Posso failed his first year, but scored enough points to repeat it and progress to the second year of his economics degree.

Undergraduate dropouts

He was one of the lucky ones. About three-quarters of undergraduates do not make it through to the second year, according to the Swiss think tank, Avenir Suisse.

“About 75 per cent won’t make it through to the second year,” agreed Garelli. “This is a problem because a lot of people are failing and they find themselves on the job market without a diploma.”

Rather than selecting students before they enter university, the process is done after the first year.

Attempts in Switzerland at limiting the number of university entrants have been largely unsuccessful.

“The problem is that from a political point of view, the idea has been rejected by many cantons,” said Garelli.

Democratic right

The idea of taking away what is considered a democratic right is unpalatable to many education authorities, but Garelli is convinced that something has to change.

And changes are afoot to radically overhaul the higher education system in Switzerland.

In 1999, Bern joined 31 other European countries in approving the Bologna Directive that foresees harmonising the university systems.

Crucially, the agreement will split the current masters degree in two, so that after three years, students will receive a bachelor’s degree, and after a further two years, a master’s.

One of the objectives of Bologna is to increase the number of graduating students, and Avenir Suisse forecasts that when it is implemented roughly 80 per cent of Swiss students will complete a bachelor’s degree.

Worse off?

Some argue that the agreement is not going to solve existing problems in Switzerland and fear the situation is set to worsen.

“They will say that we will have more people coming in [to higher education]… and this is why every university is crying out for more money, for more subsidies,” Garelli explained.

“They say that if Switzerland starts to implement [the Bologna Directive], we will have not only a problem in the first year, but we are probably going to have a problem over the three years, because we are going to have many more students,”

Garelli rejects assertions that Swiss universities are failing students and believes that despite the sobering statistics, the quality of education is “very good”.

Marc Posso shares that view. He has confidence in his professors and the quality of the degree he is well on his way to completing.

But changes at the heart of Switzerland’s higher education system are required if the current situation is to improve and the Bologna Directive is to be a success, Garelli maintains.

Keeping the newly qualified students in Switzerland is another problem that officials will then have to resolve.

swissinfo, Samantha Tonkin

Swiss universities cost SFr4.26 billion ($3.12 billion) to run in 2001.
The government was the biggest contributor to the universities, providing 44 per cent of their income.
The cantons met 41 per cent of university costs.
The three largest Swiss universities are the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, the University of Zurich and the University of Geneva.

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here . Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR