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Preparing the next Nobel laureates: A guideline through the Swiss educational system

Did you know that Switzerland has one of the highest number of Nobel laureates with 27 prize winners, corresponding to over 3 Nobel prizes per 1 million inhabitants? Did you know that over 5.9% of Switzerland’s GDP is invested in education? Did you know that the Swiss school curriculum varies according to each Canton, making it one of the most diverse ones in the world?

The Swiss education system is considered one of the best in the world, with international assessments, such as the PISA survey, highlighting the high quality of education and competence of students. At the same time, over two thirds of Swiss higher education institutes rank among the top 200 universities in the world, making them a pole of attraction for foreign students and researchers. But what are the secrets that make this system so successful?


The main principle of the Swiss educational system is that public education is free and accessible to all people, which is also illustrated by Switzerland’s literacy rate of over 99%. Compulsory education starts from kindergarten and varies among the 26 different Cantons of Switzerland. Children can choose to attend public schools or opt for other alternatives, such as private schools, boarding schools such as Le Rosay, or Montessori schools. There is also the choice for children to attend classes in a language different from the one employed in their canton of residence. After 9-10 years of compulsory primary and low-secondary education, over 90% of students decide to attend 2-4 years of upper secondary education, either choosing vocational and educational training or general education. Upon the completion of secondary studies, it is possible to either start working as a professional or to attend tertiary education. Let’s check this educational route with more details:


Primary education


The first step into the Swiss educational system begins at 4 years old, when children visit the kindergarten. During this period of 2 years, they develop their social skills through play-based learning and get familiar with the classroom environment. As soon as children turn 6 years old, they start attending primary school, which lasts from 4 to 6 years and attendance is compulsory. The majority of students visit public schools, since the quality of education is generally high. Their curriculum includes basic language skills in their cantonal language (Swiss-German, French or Italian), along with two foreign languages, usually English and another national language. Primary school students also attend courses in natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, arts and sports.


Lower-secondary education


After graduating from primary school and passing a personal assessment, Swiss students continue their compulsory education in the lower-secondary level at a Gymnasium. Attendance at a Gymnasium starts from 11-12 years old and lasts for 3-4 years, until students become 15 years old. During this time, they attend courses in subjects similar to the ones taught in primary school, alongside others, such as civic education and home economics. The main objective during that time is to further the individual development of each student, in both independent studying as well as in working as part of a group.


Upper-secondary education


Even though upper-secondary education is not compulsory, over 90% of Swiss students choose to further their studies. This level of education is split into three different tracks, namely general education, vocational training and specialized education.

The general education track, also called the academic baccalaureate, lasts four years and its goal is to prepare students for their admission in an institute of higher education. Students attend core courses in linguistics and sciences, along with a main and a secondary specialization. At the end of their education, they are asked to do an independent project on a specific topic, relevant to their interests and field of study they wish to pursue. Upon graduation, they obtain the Graduation Diploma, called Matura, which gives them access to universities, institutes of technology and teacher training universities.

The vocational and educational training (VET) includes a dual-track practical and technical formation that lasts 2-4 years. During this period, students combine theoretical knowledge with a compulsory apprenticeship in a company. Students opting for this track can have access to a wide variety of over 230 professions, which enables them to cultivate the skills fitting best to their abilities. Upon graduation, students obtain a VET Diploma and a supplementary Berufsmatura.

As far as specialized schools are concerned, their goal is to prepare students for higher vocational education (PET) in professions related to healthcare, social work and pedagogy. Upon graduation, students obtain the Fachmatura and are also eligible for access to teacher training universities.


Tertiary education


Apart from the PET education that was discussed above, the Swiss tertiary education is composed of higher education institutes. Such institutes include cantonal universities, federal institutes of research, universities of applied sciences and universities of teacher education. Their entrance requirements include only the Matura, which makes them accessible to many students. The Swiss tertiary education system is based on a three-tiered model, composed of a Bachelor (3 years), a Master (2 years) and a Doctorate (4-5 years). During their studies, students attend lectures on diverse specialized subjects, while also performing research at the Bachelor, Master and Doctorate level. At the end of each one of the three stages of higher education, they are called to conduct and defend a thesis, which is a piece of individual and original research work in their field of interest.

The most famous group of Swiss tertiary educational institutes is the ETH domain, which includes the two federal institutes (ETHZ and EPFL), along with the four fundamental research centers, where strong collaborations and high-quality interdisciplinary work happens. This group, along with the other universities in Switzerland, is funded either by the Confederation or from the Canton in which the institute belongs, achieving a total investment of CHF 40.8 billion, corresponding to 5.9% of Switzerland’s GDP.

Thanks to its support system, funding and commitment to excellence, the Swiss universities attract a great number of international students, doctoral candidates and post-docs. It is estimated that over 30% of university students in Switzerland are international students, with percentages ranging from 13% up to 67% in individual institutes. As far as funding is concerned, fundamental research in Swiss universities is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), while maintaining a close link with the job market and innovative start-ups. In this way, Switzerland ensures mobility and knowledge transfer from the academic sector to the market, while maintaining high professional standards.


Figure 1. The different levels of the Swiss educational system


Figure 2. Roadmap to the Swiss tertiary educational system


Sources (accessed at 18.04.2023)

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_Nobel_laureates_per_capita

  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Nobel_laureates_by_country

  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Switzerland

  4. https://www.eda.admin.ch/aboutswitzerland/en/home/bildung-wissenschaft/bildung/bildung---fakten-und-zahlen.html

  5. https://www.expatica.com/ch/education/children-education/education-in-switzerland-100021/

  6. https://www.academics.com/guide/higher-education-switzerland

  7. https://www.educationsuisse.ch/de/ausbildung-schweiz

  8. https://www.sbfi.admin.ch/sbfi/en/home/ihe/higher-education.html

  9. https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/how-easy-is-it-for-foreign-students-to-study-in-swiss-universities-/45809912

  10. https://www.bfs.admin.ch/bfs/en/home/statistics/education-science/finances-educational-system/public-expenditure.html#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20the%20Confederation%2C%20cantons,CHF%2040.8%20billion%20on%20education.


Figures sourced from references

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