Swiss universities often do well in the rankings but they are too small to be the very best in the world on their own, a top university official says.
Antonio Loprieno, head of the Conference of Swiss University Rectors, says the country's universities do not have enough resources to attract a critical mass of researchers by themselves but pooling talent and means could be one way to reach the top.
"Generally we do quite well but we have a big problem in that we hardly reach the top positions in the world," Loprieno told swissinfo.ch. "All universities need to ask themselves if they are doing the right thing and how they are going to position themselves in the future."
Earlier this month the London-based Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings placed the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) at 20th in the world. The top 16 slots went to United States-based and British institutions, with Harvard taking the top slot for the sixth year in a row.
MetroBasel, a Basel-based think tank, is setting out to explore how Switzerland's major universities stack up against similar centres worldwide and what can be done to ensure the country becomes a powerhouse for innovation.
Lawmakers will be gearing up soon to discuss legislation that allocates money to Swiss universities, and MetroBasel says the benchmark study, to be completed in around one year, will make university officials better prepared for requesting funds or policy changes designed to keep them competitive.
Where the shoe hurts
The Times study showed Switzerland had seven institutions in the top 200, with the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) leading the rest of the best at 42nd. Bern University was ranked 193rd.
That is not bad for a small country like Switzerland, but Christoph von Arb, a former science policy adviser with the Swiss consulate in Boston, says such rankings are a double-edged sword. Universities that do relatively well can see the scores as justification for keeping the status quo.
"We don't want to end up like the tenured professor who excels in his very small field," he said. "Often what happens is the field will move on but the professor will not."
Von Arb, who will be conducting the study for MetroBasel, has honed in on five Swiss universities from regions responsible for 85 per cent of the country's gross domestic product: Basel University, ETHZ, Zurich University, EPFL and Geneva University.
The idea is to take an exhaustive look at those institutions – from how the administrations are organised, to how they get funding and the regulations that go with it – to see how they compare with similar institutions in Germany, Sweden, Singapore and the US.
"We want to find out where the shoe hurts from a regulation point of view down to the nitty-gritty of internal management," he told swissinfo.ch. "This is to give universities fact-based demonstrations to show really solid reasons for what they need to do.
The question is: Do these areas of Switzerland have the material they need to keep attracting business 20 or 30 years from now? In the end, it's a marketplace and administrators don't have a competitive-business gene."
Sum greater than parts
The idea for the study really began in the late 1990s when pharmaceutical giant Novartis announced its new research facility would not be built in Switzerland but in the US.
"That went through the country like a shockwave," von Arb said. "People were thinking, what did we do wrong? It was a trigger that got us thinking about what we need to do to foster and keep high-tech innovation."
Universities "take brains and make better brains" and therefore play a key role in contributing to the economic fabric of a region, von Arb says. But Swiss universities, which have around 110,000 students, simply do not have the manpower or massive funds needed to sustain top-level output on a global scale.
To fix that, von Arb says the study will pick up taboo subjects in Switzerland such as charging heftier tuitions for attending university. Schools may need to be more selective in picking students and shop around for the best brains in the world, regardless of student nationality. Universities may also need to look at "branding" their image to attract the best researchers and create alumni associations to raise funds.
"We are not like the US where you have Harvard and then Oregon Valley College," Loprieno said. "Some in Switzerland might be stronger in A, weaker in B, but we are all pretty comparable."
For the moment, Swiss universities need to see each other more as collaborators instead of competitors, Loprieno said. By pooling together the top researchers and resources at all universities to tackle projects, the country can produce breakthrough results that the world demands.
"It would be important to have a benchmark study like this because it would make clear in which areas we could find synergies," Loprieno said. "Together we can reach the critical mass to be at the head of the line."
Tim Neville, swissinfo.ch
Higher education in Switzerland
12: universities with doctorate programmes
9: universities of applied sciences
14: universities of teacher education
Several institutes, such as the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva and the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration (IDHEAP) in Lausanne.
One of the most popular university ranking systems comes from the Shanghai Jiao Tong University that compares 1200 higher-education institutions from around the globe. It takes into account the number of Nobel Prize winners affiliated with the school as well as how often papers from researchers appear in journals like Nature or Science.
The study by von Arb and MetroBasel is considerably different in that it is not specifically looking at how productive Swiss universities are in terms of awards or recognition. Rather, the goal is to do personal interviews with faculty department heads, university executives and parliamentarians to see how schools are structured, receive funding and attract students and researchers.
Von Arb used the Shanghai report to find schools in Germany, Sweden and the United States, among others, that are similar in ranking to Swiss institutions.
According to the 2008 Shanghai rankings, ETHZ places 24th, just below Kyoto University and just above the University of Toronto. The next-best Swiss university on the list is Zurich University, which placed 53rd, just above Rutgers State University – New Brunswick in New Jersey and just below the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.