Faculties face the axe in university shake-up

Swiss students are spoilt for choice but critics argue the system does not produce world class courses Keystone

Controversial plans to pressure universities into shutting down uncompetitive departments have been submitted to the government.

This content was published on September 11, 2003 minutes

The aim is to streamline the country’s ten universities and two technology institutes and ensure a more efficient pooling of resources.

Student representatives say they are shocked by the plans, which threaten to radically reform Switzerland’s higher education landscape.

University presidents were due to meet senior government officials last week to discuss the proposals drafted by the Swiss Science and Technology Council - an advisory body to the government.

“Instead of offering everything like a street corner grocery store, [the universities] should focus on their strengths and offer those things which they could offer at an internationally competitive level,” Professor Gottfried Schatz, the council’s president, told swissinfo.

Under the plans, the federal government - which shares the burden of university funding with the cantons - would only support faculties offering teaching and research that met “the highest international standards”.

“If this evaluation is done professionally and correctly, then many small disciplines which are currently being fed by the universities will disappear, because they will not generate any support,” added Schatz.

Government support

Charles Kleiber, the state secretary for science and research, told swissinfo his department fully endorsed the recommendations put forward by the advisory body.

“There are too many faculties and the critical mass is not high enough,” he said.

“We will invite all universities to focus their activities in some areas so that they have one or two centres of competence - everyone can’t do everything,” he added.

The office for science and research, which is headed by Kleiber, has set up a task force to prepare draft legislation that will then be submitted to parliament.

If there are no serious objections, the “University Promotion Law” could be passed by parliament by 2005.

Kleiber, who claimed there was a “large consensus” on the way the system could function in future, maintained that any changes would safeguard diversity while promoting high standards.

“Is it worthwhile to have three departments of Sanskrit or Egyptology? Couldn’t you put them together so that you have one or two which are bigger and better,” he questioned.

Overhaul needed

Swiss universities have long discussed the need for an overhaul, amid fears over funding, falling academic standards and too low or high student numbers in some fields.

But the Union of Students told swissinfo it was stunned by the proposals to close selected departments.

Union president Lea Brunner said representatives had met the government to discuss the creation of “centres of competence”, but did not realise that legislation was already being drafted.

“We are not convinced this will improve students’ choice if they are forced to move to another canton where one of these centres is,” said Brunner.

swissinfo has learnt that the presidents of Switzerland’s universities have only recently received the Science and Technology Council’s proposals for appraisal.

The Rector’s Conference of Swiss Universities, which declined to comment on the policy document, was due to meet Kleiber last week to give him its initial response.

The Union of Students confirmed that it would be meeting government officials in Bern later this month to discuss the proposals.

swissinfo, Tania Peitzker

Key facts

There are around 120,000 university students in Switzerland.
There are three universities in the French-speaking part of Switzerland (Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchâtel), and five in the German-speaking part of Switzerland (Basel, Bern, Zurich, Lucerne, St Gallen).
Fribourg University is bilingual German-French. Since 1996 there has been a university in Italian-speaking Ticino, with its main base in Lugano. There are Federal Institutes of Technology in Lausanne and Zurich.

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