The Swiss Education System: particularities and international context

Tuesday 7 September, 14:00 - 17:30

The afternoon will be organised into two 90-minute sessions, each offering two presentations (a total of four 30-minute presentations with 15 minutes for discussion at the end of each presentation). The first afternoon session (14:00 - 15:30) will focus on Switzerland’s position in an international educational context; the second (16:00 - 17:30) will be dedicated to presenting the Swiss education system and its particularities (federalism, innovation, dual-track vocational education and training, continuing education).

These four presentations will highlight the particularities of the Swiss education system by exploring its characteristics and ability to adapt to evolutions within society with which it is confronted (e.g., digital teaching, vocational curricula, internationalisation, privatisation, the influence of the job market on educational content, inclusive learning, the connection between work and education).

The presentations will be broadcast live from a conference room where the guest speakers, the moderating team, and a limited audience will be present. The presentations will be broadcast on the congress’s platform where online participants can ask questions using the chat function.

Theme 1: Swiss governance in terms of education

(Introduction to first presentation, by session organisers)

The Swiss education system is notable for its significant decentralisation, or, in other words, its high degree of federalism. The regions are given a certain amount of autonomy regarding educational policy, while the Confederation plays the role of coordinator, ensuring inter-cantonal laws and agreements are being respected. But how does this work in real terms? What are the links between Swiss society and federal, regional, and cantonal governance? Which domains are coordinated? How much room for manoeuvre do the cantons have? What are the restrictions and freedoms?

The Educational System in Switzerland: strengths and weaknesses

Prof. Katharina Maag Merki

In Switzerland the educational system can be particularly characterised by its high degree of federalism. The main responsibility for education lies with the cantons. This is particularly true of compulsory education, whereas with regard to post-compulsory education (upper-secondary general education, vocational and professional education and training, universities), the cantons and the federal government each have their own areas of responsibility. The EDK (Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education) is their coordination body at the national level and has a subsidiary function. However, the past 15 years have seen closer coordination of the key features of compulsory education, for example the implementation of performance standards and harmonisation of the curriculum. Furthermore, in many cantons a systematic monitoring and accountability system has been implemented, although it is only low stake compared to many other countries. Besides the actors at the federal and cantonal levels, actors at the regional and local levels and the strong anchoring of schools in the community are typical characteristics of the educational system in Switzerland.

In this presentation, after introducing the key features of the educational system in Switzerland, I will present empirical results to identify strengths and weaknesses of the system. The main focus will be on analysing of the effectiveness of the educational system in terms of equality and how the actors coordinate their tasks in order to improve the quality of schooling and learning. Both topics can be used to make the advantages and disadvantages of the education system in Switzerland visible and to discuss ideas for the further development of the system.

Theme 2: Higher education in Switzerland (Part 1)

(Introduction to second presentation, by session organisers)

Swiss universities and federal institutes of technology are an uncontested mark of Swiss excellence in this domain (Shanghai Ranking 2020: ETH Zurich is ranked 20th, the University of Geneva is 59th, the University of Zurich is 56th, EPFL is 83rd and the University of Basel is 88th; five universities in the world’s top 100). These academic institutions have seen impressive growth since the 2000s and have had significant international impact. Why are they so successful? What are their strengths? What challenges lie ahead? How do they stay at the top?

How to Keep the Higher Education System in Switzerland Successful?

Prof. Michael Hengartner

Switzerland has an excellent education system. This is due to the fact that it is very permeable. It is therefore possible to adapt the educational pathways to one’s own development at any time. Students can start with an apprenticeship and still, if they subsequently complete a vocational Matura, end up studying at a university. The low rate of Matura graduates in Switzerland compared to other countries strengthens the acceptance of the different educational paths and ensures that students with a Matura are well prepared for high-quality studies at a university. The success of the Swiss higher education system rests on three pillars. The first is international openness. Swiss universities aim to attract the best minds worldwide, be they students, doctoral candidates or professors. The second is a high level of operational autonomy. Universities act autonomously from politics and administration and manage their own affairs. This independence, especially from politics, is crucial for their success. The third important pillar is solid, stable funding. Universities in Switzerland are mainly financed by the federal government and the cantons. This enables consistent planning because the funding is steady and reliable. The coronavirus crisis has dramatically demonstrated the great financial risk that universities carry when they depend too heavily on tuition fees or third-party money. Ensuring continued social and political support for all three pillars will be necessary to secure the attractiveness and strength of the Swiss higher education system also in the future.

Theme 2: Higher education in Switzerland (Part 2)

(Introduction to third presentation, by session organisers)

In the 2000s, Switzerland undertook an in-depth reform of its higher education system, particularly through the introduction of universities of applied sciences (UAS) to tertiary education. Why reform? What are the aims of UAS? Why are they so successful? What links do they create with the job market? Where do they stand internationally?

UAS: Practice-oriented study courses and continuing education programmes

Prof. Luciana Vaccaro

The Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts (UAS) offer practice-oriented bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes. In Switzerland, there are currently around 80,000 students at the UAS, 90% at the bachelor’s level and 10% at the master’s level.

Bachelor’s degree holders are prepared for immediate immersion in the professional world and their prospects are very promising, as the employment rate for UAS degree holders is 95%.

The UAS also provide continuing education programmes in the field of professional practice that meet the requirements of the constantly changing labour market.

Practice-based research at UAS is an essential part of the Swiss innovation ecosystem. In various research projects, the UAS develop solutions to urgent challenges in cooperation with and for partners from the economy, culture and society. The results of the research carried out are then integrated into teaching.

Theme 3: Switzerland’s dual system for vocational education and training

(Introduction to fourth presentation, by session organisers)

Another particularity of the Swiss education system lies in the dual system for vocational education and training – an aspect inherited from Germanic traditions which has been extended throughout Switzerland to French- and Italian-speaking regions. This system is the envy of many countries, but how does it work? Despite the overall efficiency and quality of the system, one of the main challenges for apprentices is combining and integrating their experiences at work with what they learn at school. How do you promote the integration of knowledge, skills and attitudes? Can we use technology and its potential to facilitate the connection between vocational learning in different locations?

A pedagogical approach to integrating technologies in dual VET as “boundary objects” to foster connectivity across learning locations

Prof. Alberto Cattaneo

Learners in dual VET face the challenge of combining knowledge, skills and attitudes encountered in different learning locations, like school and the workplace. Connecting these settings to promote integrated vocational learning does not happen automatically; it involves a complex process of contextualisation (including multiple de- and re-contextualisation), and of continuous transformation, in which knowledge is generated across individual as well as social activities. Technology can intervene in the dynamic, supporting this process and leading to effective learning outcomes. Over the years, we have developed and tested a pedagogical model under the hypothesis that technologies can constitute “boundary objects” to better articulate connectivity across VET locations, starting from the principles of experiential learning. In this contribution, after having briefly introduced the model and its theoretical roots, we will present three of its implementations, and the related digital tools. The first is a long-term experience with apprentice chefs using their mobile phones to create their recipe book in an online learning environment: we will show the effectiveness of the intervention on declarative knowledge acquisition, motivation, performance, and perceived connectivity. The second is related to a new learning environment we developed to be used by many professions; we show that when introducing it to the users, a model of training considering the importance of connecting locations is the most effective on the final adoption of the tool. The third case finally concerns a completely different technology, to show that this is not the condition. The case deals with the use of hypervideo at school in several professions to learn professional procedures; similarly, to what happened with the chefs, we will show results on both the cognitive and affective dimensions of learning, as well as on the learners’ and teachers’ perception about how much the intervention is effective in supporting connectivity across locations.


Prof. Katharina Maag Merki

University of Zurich

Katharina Maag Merki is Full Professor of Educational Science at the University of Zurich with a focus on the Theoretical and Empirical Studies of Educational Processes in Schools. Professor Maag Merki’s main research interests include educational governance, school effectiveness and school improvement, and self-regulated learning. She has over 20 years’ experience in conducting complex interdisciplinary longitudinal analyses into the processes and effectiveness of educational systems and schools. At the moment, she is conducting a four-year multi-method study supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). The study’s goal is to investigate the school improvement capacity of primary schools in order to foster teaching and learning of students. From 2009–2012, Katharina Maag Merki was the President of the Swiss Society for Research in Education. Currently, she is a member of the National Research Council for educational sciences of the Swiss National Science Foundation and Vice Dean for Academic Careers at the Faculty of Arts, University of Zurich.

UZH - Institute of Education - Prof. Dr. Katharina Maag Merki

Prof. Michael Hengartner

President of the ETH Board

Michael O. Hengartner, President of the ETH Board since February 2020, served as Rector of the University of Zurich (UZH) from February 2014 to January 2020. From 2016 until his resignation as Rector of UZH, he also served as President of swissuniversities. Michael Hengartner has dual Swiss and Canadian citizenship. He grew up in Quebec City, where he studied biochemistry at Université Laval.

Michael Hengartner completed an Executive MBA at IMD Lausanne and has been honoured with numerous awards for his groundbreaking research on the molecular basis of apoptosis, including the Swiss National Latsis Prize in 2006. Michael Hengartner was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne University in 2016 in recognition of his research in molecular biology and his services to society.

Prof. Luciana Vaccaro

Rector HES-SO University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland

Luciana Vaccaro, who has a PhD in science from EPFL, trained in her native Naples. She began her career at CERN before doing a PhD in physics and being appointed as a lecturer at the Institute of Microtechnology at the University of Neuchâtel. She then took charge of postgraduate training in management and health at the University of Lausanne. In 2009, she was hired by EPFL to set up and run the Grants Office, where she worked mainly on research funding at the national and European levels. On 1 October 2013 she became the Rector of the HES-SO University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland, an institution with more than 21,000 students and 28 schools active in six teaching and research fields. She is a member of the Executive Committee of the SNSF Foundation Council and Vice-President of Innosuisse. She is married and has two children.

Prof. Alberto Cattaneo

Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (SFIVET)

Dr. Alberto A. P. Cattaneo is Professor and Head of the research field “Educational Technologies in VET Programmes” at the Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (SFIVET), where he is also in charge of the course for student teachers on educational technology for teaching. His current main research fields concern the integration of ICT in teaching-and-learning processes, reflective learning in vocational education, instructional design, multimedia learning – especially when it comes to using hypervideos, augmented reality and virtual reality – teacher education and the professional competence development of teachers, in particular related to digital competence. Across projects, he has also investigated under which conditions the use of technology can foster connectivity across learning locations in VET.

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