Student grants torn between fairness and federalism

The conditions for student grants in Switzerland vary among the 26 cantons Keystone

Should Switzerland’s 26 cantonal grant schemes be harmonised? Voters will decide on June 14 on the proposal put forward by the main Students’ Association, which says it is fairer.

This content was published on April 21, 2015 - 11:00

Opponents – everyone apart from the political left – call for federalism to be respected.

In Switzerland, education is a cantonal issue and this includes student grants. The cantons are free to fix their criteria and the conditions for obtaining them, as well as their size.

As a result, not only the likelihood of getting a grant but also the amount varies considerably from canton to canton, as the graphic shows. 

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On the other hand, over recent decades the number of secondary and tertiary level students in Switzerland as a whole has continued to grow. Between 1990 and 2013 it went up by 44% from 441,687 to 638,135. Over the same period, the number receiving grants fell by 9%:

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To change the situation, in 2010 the Students’ Association launched their proposal , which calls for the transfer of regulatory competence in matters of support for tertiary education from the cantons to the national government. Legislation would thereby be standardised.

“What is at stake with this initiative are equality and equal opportunities. These are principles written into the constitution, but which today are trampled on,” says Mathias Reynard from the leftwing Social Democratic Party.

“Everyone should be able to have the education they want based on motivation and ability. Today, this is no longer guaranteed, because the quota of student grants continues to dwindle and people therefore dip into their parents' wallets.”

Reynard says the system is “totally unfair” because the size of the grant is not based on your financial situation but on which canton you live in.

However, Nadja Pieren from the conservative right Swiss People’s Party says it is fair that there are differences because the grants are linked to factors that vary from canton to canton such as the cost of living and costs connected with studying.

“We have an excellent system which enables the cantons to regulate the student grants in an appropriate manner for their respective situations,” she says.

For Pieren, the initiative is “meddling in cantonal sovereignty and a massive interference in our federalist system”.


Like the cabinet and most parliamentarians, Pieren thinks one shouldn’t throw out decades of negotiations that have resulted in the international agreement on student grants, in force since 2013.

This so-called concordat, which is adhered to by 16 of the 26 cantons, fixes minimum standards for the granting of student loans and their size in order to guarantee a harmonisation of criteria.

Since the concordat is not binding for the cantons which have not signed it, in order to motivate the harmonisation at a national level, the government has adopted a revision of the law on educational support. This makes the government aid subject to compliance with minimum formal provisions.

Facts and figures

According to the latest figures, in Switzerland in 2013 the cantons paid CHF334 million in support towards education, of which 95% was in the form of grants. Of that, 53% was assigned to tertiary-level students, who on average received CHF8,276. 46% went to secondary-level students, who on average received CHF5,458. The rest went to those taking part in obligatory schooling or permanent education.

In 2013, 7.2% of the 638,135 young people who had opted to continue their studies received a grant. This was the lowest rate since 1990.

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Reynard points out that the preparatory commission of the House of Representatives had put forward a counter-proposal to the initiative, which would have involved linking government support for the cantons to the financial provisions of the concordat.

But the commission’s proposals were ditched by parliament.

“With the result that the counter-proposal is empty – it no longer has any substance,” he says.


For their part, opponents of the initiative also point to the financial consequences: extending student grants would mean the state as a whole would pay around CHF500 million ($522 million) a year more than at present, they say.

“That’s a considerable amount, to which would be added additional administrative costs of several hundreds of thousands of francs a year caused by new tasks. In short, this change would be very expensive and, what’s more, unnecessary, because in Switzerland we have an educational system that works well,” argues Pieren.

Reynard retorts that “politics is about priorities and voices”.

For him the top priority in Switzerland is education. “This explains the country’s wealth. If we’re prospering, it’s thanks to the high level of education, research, innovation. If we want to preserve that, it’s necessary to invest.”

But according to Pieren, more money for student grants would lead to neither more students finishing tertiary education nor a better education system.

On the contrary: that CHF500 million would be missed in other fields of education.

“If we had to make savings in the vocational training scheme, it would be a grave error which would lead to an increase in youth unemployment in our country,” she warns. “Today we have a high-level, diversified system which works.”

In parliament, the arguments of the initiative’s opponents clearly prevailed – it was rejected by 135 votes to 58 in the House of Representatives and by 32 votes to 12 in the Senate. Only the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Protestant Party supported it.

The Swiss public will have the final say on June 14. As it is a constitutional amendment, to be successful it needs a double majority of votes and cantons.

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