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Swiss universities gear up for European reforms

Switzerland's universities are set to undergo sweeping changes Keystone

Swiss universities are undergoing sweeping structural changes as part of Europe-wide reforms, known as the Bologna Declaration.

But some institutions are still dragging their heels over the measures, which they say will drive a wedge between rich and poor students.

Bologna aims to harmonise the length of degrees in European universities in a bid to make it easier for students to study and work abroad.

A bachelor’s degree will take three years, and a master’s degree a further two.

More graduates

A further objective is to increase the number of graduating students. In Switzerland, up to 50 per cent of university students fail to complete their degree.

Although Bologna is due to come into force across Europe by 2010, Swiss universities are expected to implement the new measures by 2005.

Many universities, such as St Gallen, have already restructured their faculties ahead of Bologna, while others – such as Basel, Lucerne and Ticino – have very nearly completed the transition.

But higher education institutions in French-speaking Switzerland – along with numerous student groups – are more sceptical. The universities of Neuchâtel, Lausanne and Geneva are not likely to be ready before autumn 2004.

Two-tier system

Although the reforms are designed to give students more freedom to study abroad, the Swiss students’ union claims that ideal is far from being a fait accompli. Mobility will be a luxury only wealthier students will be able to afford, it says.

The union predicts that the reforms will in practice create a two-tier system, whereby most students will end up with a bachelor’s degree, but only a few will be able to finance their master’s course.

The new courses are likely to be more intensive, giving students less time to work part-time.

The Union also fears that university taxes could be raised to make up for the cost of reforms – a fear allayed by Rudolf Nägeli, a cantonal education director.

“Some courses will become shorter, so in the end they shouldn’t cost any more,” he told swissinfo.

Economic benefits

Thomas Frings, political secretary of the student’s union believes the reforms are largely driven by economic considerations.

“It’s effectively creating a bigger graduate market place to benefit the economy,” he says.

The business-funded think tank, Avenir Suisse, supports this view.

“The new system is very appealing for businesses,” says Xavier Comtesse of Avenir Suisse.

“The university system is very slow at the moment. The reforms mean students will get on the job market faster.”

Falling standards

The union is concerned that the measures will lead to a drop in academic standards.

It argues that Swiss students will in future have to stay on for five years if they want to get a qualification that is equivalent to the current Swiss bachelor’s degree.

In the English-speaking world, where the new system was first put in place, only 20 per cent of students go on to do a master’s degree.

It is also still not clear whether students who have completed their bachelor’s degree will be able to choose the university in which they study for their master’s degree – or whether they will be handpicked by the universities themselves.

Swiss cantonal directors will decide this issue in December.

swissinfo, Alexandra Richard (translation: Vanessa Mock)

There are 3 universities in the French-speaking part of Switzerland – Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchâtel.
The German-speaking part of Switzerland has five – Basel, Bern, Zurich, Lucerne and St Gallen.
Fribourg University is bilingual German-French.
Since 1996 there has been a university in Italian-speaking Ticino, mainly based at Lugano.
There are Federal Institutes of Technology in Lausanne (EPF) and Zurich (ETH).

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR