Swiss students' lack of interest in the natural sciences and technology is threatening the country's position as a centre of global research excellence.
This was the warning behind an initiative launched jointly on Monday in the Swiss capital, Bern, by Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin and Economics Minister Doris Leuthard.
The main aim of NaTech Education is to integrate an understanding of technology and the natural sciences – which deal with the natural world such as physics, chemistry, biology and geology – into the Swiss education policy at the primary and secondary levels.
The main focus is the further education of teaching staff and the development of teaching material and aids.
Further aims include technical weeks at teacher training colleges, improving the image and value of technology-based subjects at school, in addition to public relations work.
Also on Monday the EducaTech website went online. The Swiss education portal, offers free information and training materials for technical education.
Kathy Riklin, a parliamentarian and speaker of the House of Representatives' science and education commission, explained at the launch that in recent years new power dynamics had arisen at a global level which could spell danger for Europe and Switzerland.
She added that one of the reasons that Asian countries are increasingly threatening the competitiveness of economies in the West is because they lay a great value on the promotion of science and technology in higher and further education.
In Switzerland, however, a growing number of young people had no interest in technical studies or apprenticeships, according to Riklin.
She said this was disastrous for a society whose capacity for innovation, economy, infrastructure and quality of life is dependent on scientific knowledge and its technical implementation.
Dieter Imboden, president of the Swiss National Science Foundation's research council, said the initiative was aimed at a central problem of the Swiss education system that could no longer be pushed to one side.
Imboden said he was very concerned when he heard that Swiss universities were considering introducing entry tests for students wanting to study at university – currently only some universities apply entrance exams for medical students.
"Switzerland's position as a place of research is already threatened by a widespread hostility to technology and research", he said.
Imboden also believed the current educational trend of focusing on the humanities and social sciences and on art was dangerous.
As a result of this, he said, the natural sciences and technology were being neglected and technophobia was being encouraged.
swissinfo with agencies
On May 21, 2006 the Swiss people and cantons voted in favour of a constitutional amendment on education. The cantons maintain their autonomy in education matters but are obliged to harmonise the main aspects of the education system.
At the beginning of July 2006, the government voted to limit its increase in funding for training, research and innovation to 4.5% for the 2008-2011 period.
Switzerland spends SFr11,000 annually on each student – SFr3,000 more than the average for 29 OECD countries.
In 2003 Switzerland spent SFr26 billion on education – the cantons spent SFr22.3 billion and the government spent SFr3.5 billion; the government also finances the two federal institutes of technology.
Under Switzerland's federalist system the country's 26 cantons enjoy a large degree of autonomy in education matters. And, together with each community, they are largely responsible for the financing of education (90%).
The Bologna Declaration of 1999 aims to create a European Higher Education Area by 2010. Switzerland is one of 45 countries in Europe that signed up to the accord, whose aim is to harmonise European higher education to make it more attractive internationally.