A new mood of competition has been imposed on Swiss universities, as places of higher learning are exposed to league tables for the first time.This content was published on November 3, 2001 - 10:49
They may be unofficial and they may be far from complete, but the rankings drawn up by the new company "swissUp" of 12 higher education establishments in Switzerland are the first time they have been able to compare their overall performance alongside that of their competitors. Some vice-chancellors are happier about this than others.
The whole culture of competition between universities is relatively alien in Switzerland, but there is a growing feeling that in order to improve, universities must measure themselves against similar institutions - abroad as well as in Switzerland. Most other countries in Western Europe have some kind of ranking system.
"Our objective is not to judge universities, but to create a tool that will give students the chance to make an informed choice," says Madeleine von Holzen, swissUp's chief executive. "We would like to see more transparency.
"Switzerland does not have any natural resources. Human capital is its most important resource. Swiss universities are good, but they have to stay good," she told swissinfo.
The list tells potential students, for example, that if they want to study information technology, they should go to the Federal Technology Institutes in Zurich (ETHZ) and Lausanne (EPFL).
The list tells them that Geneva University is the best place to study social sciences, but the worst for IT; that if you want to be a lawyer, St Gallen and Fribourg are the places to go; and for economics, Lausanne University is tops.
Basel and Zurich universities don't come out of the survey with particularly good grades.
The rankings are just one of swissUp's activities. The independent Geneva-based company has created an Internet portal (see below) which deals with all aspects of higher education.
The league table is not based solely on results. Rather it looks at a whole range of criteria, including student satisfaction, student-staff ratios, employment prospects and length of courses.
The results were broken down into six broad subject categories: Economics, Law, Information Technology, Sciences, Social Sciences and Engineering.
There is no single overall league table, like those in the United States or Britain but, by being broken down into separate categories with different indicators, the rankings may have lost some of their impact, but they gain in credibility.
SwissUp's initiative has been given a cautious welcome by the federal authority responsible for higher education.
"We are in favour," says Mufit Sabo, of the State Secretariat for Science and Research. "It gives students a clearer choice, and allows universities to know where they stand in relation to one another. It might shake things up in certain faculties."
These first rankings, not surprisingly, have not been without their critics. Some say the sample of students surveyed - around 1,300 - was too small.
Other university officials complain that the whole area of research has been overlooked. They point out that universities are not just there to pass on knowledge - but also to create it.
"It's a serious omission," says Patrick Aebischer, president of the EPFL, "research is a fundamental way of judging how good a faculty is."
Von Holzen says swissUp has taken this criticism on board and will incorporate suggestions into future league tables.
Undergraduates in Switzerland have traditionally gone to their nearest university, mainly for reasons of cost. Whether the league table will prompt a sea-change in attitudes remains to be seen.
Ultimately, it may have a more profound impact on the universities themselves, as they are shamed into doing something about standards.
by Roy Probert
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