Is Zurich University losing its Swissness?

Students at Zurich University: Swiss history is in demand, but no one wants to study it as a main subject Keystone

Swiss history will no longer be a main degree subject at Zurich University as lecturers seek to comply with the Bologna regulations for European universities.

This content was published on November 25, 2005 - 10:59

At the same time an ever-increasing number of Germans are teaching at the university, leaving some Swiss asking just how "Swiss" their universities still are.

Signed by 29 education ministers in 1999, the Bologna reforms are intended to create a European university community and to strengthen Europe's competitiveness as a university location.

In Switzerland, this involves replacing the Lizentiats (Masters) with a two-tiered system of Bachelors and Masters degrees.

Because the reforms must be implemented within the next year, universities are now in the thick of redesigning and streamlining their degree programmes.

Currently only three of the 1,300 history students at Zurich University are taking Swiss history as their main degree subject, a number in line with previous years. Under Bologna harmonisation rules, at least 20 students must be enrolled for a subject to qualify as a major.

Changing times

But university professors deny that there is any cause for concern.

Jakob Tanner, who teaches history at the university, says that courses on Switzerland's history have always been popular and that enthusiasm for them remains unabated. All eight masters theses and four doctoral dissertations that he approved this semester are devoted to Switzerland, he says.

On the other hand, Tanner thinks the university "cannot keep a major, for which there is practically zero demand, out of nationalistic or ideological grounds".

He says the decision reflects changes in how historical research is conducted.

"What you no longer see is the study of Swiss history in its narrowest sense. Nowadays historians use theoretical approaches and methodological systems, and their findings are discussed internationally. In this sense history is no longer national. That's important, and that's the way it should be," he said.

Roger Sablonier, a fellow history professor, agrees.

"The elimination of the Swiss history major in no way affects the number of courses on the topic that are available to students," he noted. According to Sablonier, 80 per cent of masters theses in general history contain Swiss themes.

Sablonier said that the real reason hardly anyone studies Swiss history as their main degree subject is that it is not accepted as a qualification for teaching at academic high schools in Switzerland, which limits its usefulness on the job market.


Discussions of "Swissness" are often coupled with concerns about the increasing "germanification" of the teaching corps.

In many faculties, professors from Germany are already in the majority.

But this is beside the point, argue Sablonier and Tanner.

"The very word 'germanification' suggests a specific orientation in terms of content and teaching methods," said Sablonier. "That is seldom the case. Most of the Germans here are very interested in the Swiss way of doing things."

Foreign professors also work with Swiss source materials and do original research in Switzerland, Tanner said.

"They bring new aspects to the field, which is important. The writing of history isn't about patriotic drum beating. Young Swiss academics have known this for a long time and have cultivated international profiles. Historians who just work from one place are not competitive."

As for the dearth of Swiss professors, both point the finger at domestic policies that fail to nurture young Swiss talent, plus intangibles such as job insecurity in academia.

"Naturally the proportion of Germans is relatively high," said Sablonier."It goes hand in hand with the fact that young Swiss talent is not as well supported as young German talent is.

"We don't have a problem with foreigners teaching in Switzerland, we have a problem with assisting the next generation of Swiss academics. Above all, this is a problem of insufficient funding."

Tanner believes the uncertainty for young Swiss academics at key career junctures is also a thorny problem. There is too much competition for postdoctoral lecturer positions, and career prospects are uncertain.

This is not a particularly Swiss problem but one experienced abroad, including in Germany, he says.

swissinfo, Jean-Michel Berthoud

In brief

The Bologna accords were signed by 29 European educational ministers in June 1999.

Switzerland is a signatory.

The accords are aimed at harmonising European higher education, increasing student mobility, and making it easier to compare degrees from different countries.

Switzerland, along with all other European signatories to Bologna, has agreed to implement the agreed-upon reforms by 2010.

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