Students protest plan to harmonise education

Swiss students aren't listening to Europe

Swiss students are putting up a fight against plans to bring Swiss universities into line with those of other European countries.

This content was published on September 27, 2002 minutes

They say the reforms, inspired by the United States model, are being introduced for economic reasons.

Student unions say they plan to resist the proposals, which are enshrined in the Bologna Directive and which won the approval of 32 countries, including Switzerland, in 1999.

The signatories say the Directive will create a "European space for higher education" by harmonising the courses and qualifications offered by higher education institutions.

The system, due to be in place by 2010, would be structured along similar lines to higher education in the US. During the first three years of study, students would work towards acquiring a Bachelor of Arts or Sciences.

A further two years of study would lead to a Masters qualification, with the option of then continuing to study for a doctorate.


As with other areas of European integration, the main objective of the university project is to erase national barriers. It's also hoped that European universities will work more closely with one another and become more competitive.

Supporters of the scheme say the changes would enable students to study abroad more easily and would make employment markets more accessible to foreign students.

But despite the apparent benefits of the reforms, Swiss students unions have staged a number of demonstrations against the two national organisations charged with implementing the directive, the Swiss University Conference (CUS) and the Rectors' Conference of Swiss Universities (CRUS).

Economic bias

The leading Swiss students' union, UNES, says it is "vehemently" against the changes, which it describes as inadequate. "The proposals are, above all, being introduced for economic purposes," says Stephan Tschöpe, co-president of UNES.

"If you look at countries where this system is already in place, such at the US or Britain, you'll see that the main objective is to get students into the labour market as quickly as possible and to push them to polish up their studies within three years."

Tschöpe says the reforms would favour the more "useful" subjects, such as management studies, economics and natural sciences.

"Education should serve the interests of society as a whole, and not only those of the economy - even though those are also important," he says.


UNES and other student bodies say the reforms are tantamount to the introduction of a "two-tier class system" within higher education, whereby a Bachelor degree would be for the majority of students and an MA for the privileged few.

Tschöppe says only the student "elite" would be able to take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad, as the current student grants are insufficient to fund period abroad.

Opponents also argue that the new system would prevent students from being able to work while studying because of the more onerous study schedule. Currently, about 70 and 80 per cent of all Swiss students work to finance part of their studies.


CRUS, however, refutes the criticisms levelled against the harmonisation project.

"We want to promote transparency and quality within higher education," says Raymond Werlen, the deputy secretary-general of CRUS.

He also seeks to assuage unions' fears that a two-tier university system will emerge, saying that more students would be encouraged to study for an MA, rather than only a BA.

This would also avoid a "dumbing down" of the Swiss university degree, which takes on average four years to complete and which unions say is equivalent to an MA.

"Of course, there'll always be the temptation to finish after a BA," Werlen concedes. "And although this approach might be favoured by the business world, it's a bad choice to make in the long term."

CRUS aims to make introduce sweeping reforms within higher education, alongside the phasing-in of the Bologna Directive - although it's likely to meet with fierce student opposition along the way.


Key facts

University harmonisation has been approved by 32 countries.
Supporters say changes would enable students to study and later work abroad more easily.
Students counter that it would lead to two-tier system.

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