University Education: Swiss higher education before 1800 developed along much the same lines as that of Central Europe. Education was the task of the monasteries. The first university in Switzerland was founded in Basle in 1460. Since that time there has seen a steady increase in universities and university education in Switzerland. There are 12 state-run university institutions in Switzerland. Switzerland ranks among the countries having the highest university density, with one university for every 600,000 inhabitants. The cantonal universities are situated in Basle, Zurich, Berne, St. Gallen, Lucerne, Lausanne, Geneva, Neuchâtel, and Fribourg. In 1996 the canton of Ticino, with only four percent of the population and the only Italian-speaking canton, opened a university of its own. Universities are disproportionately distributed in the language minority cantons. In addition to the 12 universities, there are two federal institutes of technology in Zurich and Lausanne.
Although each university has its own characteristics, they are basically similar in structure. They are divided into departments or faculties, including law, economics and social science, art, natural science, and medicine. Two of the smaller universities, Fribourg and Lausanne, offer only the basic courses in medicine. St. Gallen specializes in economics, social science, and law. Lucerne, located in a Catholic canton, offers Catholic theology and philosophy, as well as law and the arts. The Italian-speaking university offers courses in architecture, social science, and arts. The two Federal Institutes of Technology produce highly qualified engineers, architects, and natural scientists. Unlike the United States, there are no private universities in the Swiss Confederation.
Each university is administered under the cantonal Department of Education. A considerable amount of autonomy is allowed under cantonal law. The two institutes of technology are exclusively maintained by the Confederation, with their autonomy assured by the Federal Act of 1993. In order to aid the cantonal universities, the "Federal Act concerning the financial aid to the universities" was implemented in 1968, amended several times and completely revised in 1999. The Federal Act of 1999, which extends until 2008, constitutes the legal basis for the federal subsidies to university cantons.
In order to offset the high costs associated with maintaining a university, the Intercantonal Agreement of 1981 initiated an agreement for all cantons, both those responsible for university and nonuniversity cantons to share costs proportionally to the number of their own students in the cantonal universities. In return for this intercantonal equalization of the financial burdens, the cantonal universities grant equal access to students from all contributing cantons. The partnership between cantons and the Confederation is a hallmark of Swiss federalism and education policy.
Individuals who want to enroll at a Swiss university must earn a state-recognized Swiss matriculation certificate (matura) or a foreign school-leaving certificate of equivalent value. All Swiss university level institutions have the same basic requirements. The Swiss maturity diplomas are officially recognized both by the Confederation and the cantons, thereby setting a comparable standard for access to Swiss universities.
Studies at Swiss universities grant basic and postgraduate degrees. Some differences exist between the various universities with respect to the length of study, the structure of the courses, and the required subjects. Since 1990 there have been several interdepartmental agreements to harmonize the study courses in specific subjects (such as law, engineering, sociology, German literature, etc.). At this writing in 2001, the Swiss universities are in the process of introducing the European credit transfer system (ECTS). The basic classes, which are of four years duration (eight semesters) lead to a first academic degree, a licentiate, which is roughly equivalent to a master's degree (M.A. or M.S.) or diploma. The completion of this degree allows further specialization and research in the chosen field leading up to a doctorate or to other specializations in professional schools or other postgraduate studies. Swiss universities do not grant Bachelor's degrees. At the beginning of the new millennium, changes toward a universal degree program are under discussion in order to comply with the American and British traditions and the Declarations of Sorbonne and of Bologna of 1998/99.
In the last decades of the twentieth century the two Federal Institutes of Technology set up continuing education departments that organize postgraduate courses. In Switzerland, continuing education is aimed at working university graduates. The courses range from a few days to a few semesters duration. Private institutions also offer continuing education, primarily in the area of business administration.
There has been a marked increase in the number of students studying at Swiss universities since the 1980s. From 1980-2000 there has been a 62 percent increase in student numbers, reaching almost 96,000 in the 1999-2000 academic year. About one-fifth of the corresponding age group of 20- to 24-year-olds attends university. By 2003 the university student body is expected to rise by 20 percent. Switzerland has a particularly high percentage of foreign students, amounting to almost one-fifth of the student population. Female students account for 45 percent of the total enrollment. There is a higher percentage of both foreigners and females at the Italian and the French-speaking universities than at German-speaking universities in Switzerland.
During 1990-2000 the number of students studying humanities, social sciences, and engineering increased. With the growing numbers of students, the institutions are becoming increasingly crowded. Medical students and students from other faculties such as psychology have to take a national aptitude test and may have to accept transfers to a Swiss university other than their first choice. So far all applicants who have complied with university entrance requirements have been granted entry to a university. If numbers continue to increase at their present rate, this situation may change in the future. The teaching staff has generally not kept up with increasing student numbers, which poses another problem at Swiss universities.
Fachhochschulen/Hautes Écoles Spécialisées (Technical Colleges): In order to face new challenges related to an increasingly technological society, Switzerland created the Fachhochschulen (FH)/Hautes écoles spécialisées (HES) (Universities of Applied Sciences) in the mid-1990s. The new FH/HES system shares a similar level with the traditional scientific universities; however, it is more applied and accepts individuals who have completed a higher vocational education. The curriculum and research are oriented toward practical application rather than pure research. Under limited conditions students may transfer from the Swiss Universities of Applied Sciences to traditional university studies.
The new FH/HES-Universities have grown out of the former Colleges of Higher Education in engineering and business administration, agriculture and sports, fine arts, design, music, health care, social work, and teachertraining. Some of these came under federal auspices while others were cantonal in nature. They still tend to service regional rather than national labor markets. There are seven regional centers of Universities of Applied Sciences. It is still unclear whether a FH/HES education will have the same status and job mobility as that provided at the traditional universities.
The Fachhochschulen offer alternatives to the academic university education at the tertiary level. The degree courses are slightly shorter in length than the traditional universities. The first FH/HES degrees were awarded in 2000. They qualify professionals to work independently by providing them with both the necessary theoretical and academic job background with a practical training of the necessary skills. Admission to the FH/HES is granted to those holding a Berufsmatura, maturité professionnelle (Federal Vocational Maturity Certificate). The degree was introduced in 1993 jointly by the Confederation and the cantons. It is achieved after three years of apprenticeship followed by a one-year, full-time general education course. Admission is also available through a federal matura and at least one year's practical experience in industry. The diplomas from the FH/HES have been developed to be approximately equivalent to the Bachelor Degree. For example, the first degree in economics is equivalent to a Bachelor of Business Administration (in comparison with the first degree at the traditional universities which is comparable to a Master's degree or M.B.A.).
The Federal Act for the Universities of Applied Sciences was adopted by the Federal Parliament in 1995, and revised in 1999. The first stage, which lasts until 2003, concentrates on the fields that are supervised by the federal authorities: engineering, economics and management, and design. By the end of 2003 the four subjects listed above are expected to enroll approximately 20,000 students. In the 1999/2000 academic year slightly under 17,000 students were enrolled.
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