Education in Switzerland

The Zentrum campus of the ETH Zurich.

The education system in Switzerland is very diverse, because the constitution of Switzerland delegates the authority for the school system mainly to the cantons. The Swiss constitution sets the foundations, namely that primary school is obligatory for every child and is free in public schools and that the confederation can run or support universities.

The minimum age for primary school is about six years in all cantons but Obwalden, where it is five years and three months. After primary schools, the pupils split up according to their abilities and intentions of career paths. Roughly 20% of all students attend secondary schools leading, normally after 12 school years in total to the federal recognized matura which grants access to all universities. The other students split in two or more school-types, depending on the canton, differing in the balance between theoretical and practical education. It is obligatory for all children to attend school for at least 9 years.

The first university in Switzerland was founded in 1460 in Basel, with a faculty of medicine.[1] This place has a long tradition of chemical and medical research in Switzerland. In total, there are 12 Universities in Switzerland; ten of them are managed by the cantons, while two federal institutes of technology, ETHZ in Zurich and EPFL in Lausanne, are under the authority of the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation.[2] In addition, there are seven regional associations of Universities for Applied Sciences (Fachhochschulen) which require vocational education and a special Berufsmatura, or a Fachmatura (a graduation by a Fachmittelschule) to study. Switzerland has a high rate of foreign students in tertiary education including one of the highest in the world of doctoral level students.[3]

Many Nobel prizes have been awarded to Swiss scientists. More recently Vladimir Prelog, Heinrich Rohrer, Richard Ernst, Edmond Fischer, Rolf Zinkernagel and Kurt Wüthrich have received nobel prizes in the sciences. In total, 113 Nobel Prize winners stand in relation to Switzerland and the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded nine times to organizations residing in Switzerland.[4][5] Geneva hosts the world's largest particle physics laboratory, the CERN.[6] Other important research centers are the Empa and Paul Scherrer Institute which belong to the ETH domain.


Simplified Swiss education system

The obligatory school system usually includes primary education (Primarschule in German, école primaire in French, scuola primaria / elementare in Italian and scola primara in Romansh) and secondary education I (Sekundarschule or Sekundarstufe I in German, secondaire I in French and scuola secondaria / media in Italian and scola secundar in Romansh). Before that, children usually go to Kindergarten, but it is not required in every canton. The minimum age for primary school is about six years in all cantons but Obwalden, where it is five years and three months. The cantons Thurgau and Nidwalden allow five-year-olds to start primary school in exceptional cases. Primary school continues until grade four, five or six, depending on the school/canton. Any child can take part in school if they choose to, but pupils are separated depending on whether they speak French, German or Italian.


At the end of primary school (or at the beginning of secondary school), pupils are separated according to their capacities and career-intentions in several (often three) sections. Students who aspire to an academic career enter Mittelschule (also named Gymnasium, or Kantonsschule, a public school by the canton/state) to be prepared for further studies and the Matura (normally obtained after 12 or 13 years of school usually at the age of 18 or 19). Students intending to pursue a trade or vocation complete three to four additional years before entering Vocational Educations which are regulated by federal law and are based on a cooperation of private business offering educational job-positions and public schools offering obligatory school-lessons complementary to the on-the-job education. This so-called "dual system" splitting academic and vocational training has its continuation in the higher education system. While the academic training leads to the matura and free admission to universities, successfully completed vocational education gives access to third level of practical education, the Höhere Fachschule (Schweiz). If in addition to the vocational training the Berufsmaturitätsschule is completed the Fachhochschule may be visited instead. Rather recently introduced is a third, middle path via the Fachmittelschule which leads to a direct access to a Fachhochschule after a successful graduation of a Fachmatura.[7][8] In some cantons, students with a Fachmatura may also get access to universities after a successful additional year. In the science literacy assessment of PISA, 15-year-old students in Switzerland had the 16th highest average score of 57 countries.

In the lower second level, there are several different teaching and school models that may exist. Some cantons define a specific model, while others allow the individual municipalities to determine which model to follow.

Separated model

Pupils are allocated to institutionally separate school types, according to their performance levels. The structure is based on the principle of equal capacities among pupils. Generally, each school type has its own adapted curricula, teaching material, teachers and, in some cases, its own range of subjects. In general, there are 2 to 3 school types (4 in a minority of cantons), the names of which vary. In the structure with 2 school types, a distinction is made between the performance-based group at basic level (with the least demanding requirements), and the performance-based group at advanced level. In the structure with 3 school types, there is a performance-based group at basic level, a performance-based group at intermediate level and a performance-based group at advanced level. The requirements of the performance-based group at advanced level are the most demanding and this school type generally prepares pupils for transfer to the matura schools.[10]

Cooperative model

The cooperative model is based on core classes with different performance requirements. Each pupil is assigned to a core class according to his or her performance level. The pupils attend lessons in certain subjects in differentiated requirement-based groups (whereby the core classes are mixed).[10]

Integrated model

The integrated model does not use different school types or core classes. Pupils with different performance levels attend the same class and mixing is maintained. In certain subjects, teaching occurs on differentiated requirement-based levels.[10]

International Education

As of January 2015, the International Schools Consultancy (ISC)[11] listed Switzerland as having 105 international schools.[12] ISC defines an 'international school' in the following terms "ISC includes an international school if the school delivers a curriculum to any combination of pre-school, primary or secondary students, wholly or partly in English outside an English-speaking country, or if a school in a country where English is one of the official languages, offers an English-medium curriculum other than the country’s national curriculum and is international in its orientation."[12] This definition is used by publications including The Economist.[13]

Switzerland was the birthplace of the International Baccalaureate in 1968[14] and 50 schools in Switzerland offer one or more of the IB programmes (Primary, Middle Years, Diploma and Career-related Programmes).[15]


Tertiary education depends on the education chosen in secondary education. For students with a matura, university is the most common one. Apprentices who attended a vocational high school will often add a Fachhochschule or a Höhere Fachschule to their curriculum.

There are 14 public and generic universities in Switzerland, 10 of which are maintained at cantonal level and usually offer a range of non-technical subjects. Of the remaining 4 institutions, 2 are run by the Swiss Confederation and are known as "Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology".

Switzerland is well known for its advanced business education system. A number of world-class universities and MBA programmes, such as the International Institute for Management Development, HEC Lausanne, St. Gallen, Strathclyde, Kalaidos FH and University of Zurich belong to that category. All of them are also registered in the Financial Times ranking. See also the list of universities in Switzerland.

Switzerland has a high rate of international students. In 2013, 16.9% of the total tertiary enrollment in Switzerland came from outside the country, a rate that is the 10th highest of the 291 countries included in the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. This rate was just higher than Austria (16.8) and just lower than the United Kingdom (17.5). However, due to the much smaller tertiary system in Switzerland their 47,000 foreign tertiary enrollments are dwarfed by much larger countries such as the United States (740,000), the United Kingdom (416,000), France (228,000) and Germany (196,000).[16] Many international students attend Swiss universities for advanced degrees. In 2013 masters programs enrolled about 27% foreign students (fourth highest rate) and doctoral programs were 52% foreign (second behind Luxembourg).[3]

Switzerland also has a high rate of PhD students and inhabitants with doctoral degrees. In 2014 Switzerland had the highest rate of inhabitants (2.98%) with doctoral degrees in the world.[16] In 2010, with 2.5%, Switzerland had the second-highest rate of inhabitants with doctoral degrees in Europe.[17] In 2008, the number of students graduating with a PhD was 3209 (up from 2822 in 2000) of which 45% were foreigners (up from 31% in 2000).[17]

Educational rankings

In 1995 Switzerland took part in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) assessment.[19] TIMSS is an international assessment of the mathematics and science knowledge of fourth- and eighth-grade students around the world. It was developed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) to allow participating nations to compare students' educational achievement across borders. In 1995, Switzerland was one of forty-one nations that participated in the study. They did not participate in later studies. Among 8th graders, Switzerland ranked 15th overall, 8th in math and 25th in science.[20]

A National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) study that used the TIMSS assessment among 12th graders found similar results. The Swiss students were in their upper secondary education and were attending either a gymnasium, general education, teacher training or advanced vocation training. In math, the Swiss scored a 540 (the average score was 500), and were 3rd out of 21. Their science score was 523, which was 8th out of 21. In physics, they scored 488 (the average was 501) and were tied for 9th place out of 16. The advanced mathematics score was 533 which was 3rd out of 16.[21]

The World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report for 2010-11 ranked Switzerland as first overall. Under the fifth pillar of the report, Higher education and training, the Swiss had a score of 5.79, which is the fourth highest among all the countries surveyed.[22]

Cantonal school systems

While compulsory schooling in Switzerland is 9 years long, many of the specifics of the system vary by canton. In most cases, the primary level lasts 6 years, and the lower secondary level 3 years. In only a few cantons, the primary level lasts 4 (BS, VD) or 5 (AG, BL, TI) years and entrance to the lower secondary level thus occurs either in school year 5 (duration: 5 years) or school year 6 (duration: 4 years). In 17 cantons, it is compulsory to attend pre-school. In almost all cantons, the municipalities are obliged to provide at least one year of pre-school classes.[23]

This table shows the school system for 2009/2010 and how the lower secondary schools are organized:[24]

Canton Years of
Years of Kindergarten provided Years of Kindergarten legally required Length of Primary School Length of mandatory Secondary School Separate Secondary Schools? Cooperative Secondary Schools? Integrated Secondary Schools? Students attending Compulsory Schools (2014/15)[25] Students attending non⁠-⁠Compulsory Secondary Schools (2014/15)[25]
 Zürich 2 2 2 6 3 Yes No No 154,800 62,194
 Bern 1 1 0 6 3 Yes Yes Yes 106,365 46,486
 Lucerne 1 1 1 6 3 Yes Yes Yes 42,526 21,397
 Uri 1 1 0 6 3 No No Yes 3,951 980
 Schwyz 1 1 1 6 3 No No Yes 16,827 4,500
 Obwalden 1 1 1 6 3 No No Yes 4,016 1,156
 Nidwalden 2 2 1 6 3 No No Yes 4,280 1,069
 Glarus 2 2 1 6 3 Yes Yes Yes 4,277 1,396
 Zug 2 2 1 6 3 No No Yes 13,759 4,860
 Fribourg 2 1 or 2 0 or 2 6 3 Yes No Yes 39,818 12,789
 Solothurn 2 2 0 6 3 Yes Yes Yes 27,883 8,537
 Basel-Stadt 2 2 2 4 5 Yes No No 17,635 11,155
 Basel-Landschaft 2 2 1 5 4 Yes No No 31,139 11,555
 Schaffhausen 2 2 1 6 3 No No Yes 8,186 2,880
 Appenzell Ausserrhoden 2 2 1 6 3 Yes Yes Yes 5,892 1,476
 Appenzell Innerrhoden 2 2 1 6 3 Yes Yes Yes 1,907 151
 St. Gallen 2 2 2 6 3 No No Yes 57,482 25,396
 Graubünden 1 1 0 6 3 Yes No No 19,503 7,552
 Aargau 22 0 63 Yes No No 73,999 24,530
 Thurgau 2 2 2 6 3 Yes No No 29,991 8,448
 Ticino 3 3 0 5 4 Yes No No 38,268 16,712
 Vaud 2 2 0 4 5 Yes No No 94,827 37,732
 Valais 1 0 0 6 3 Yes No No 36,692 14,527
 Neuchâtel 2 2 0 5 4 Yes No No 21,185 8,937
 Geneva 2 2 0 6 3 Yes No No 56,943 26,424
 Jura 2 2 0 6 3 Yes No No 8,807 3,301

Education demographics

During the 2008/09 school year there were 1,502,257 students in the entire Swiss educational system. In kindergarten or pre-school, there were 152,919 students (48.6% female). These students were taught by 13,592 teachers (96.0% female) in 4,949 schools, of which 301 were private schools. There were 777,394 students (48.6% female) in the obligatory schools, which include primary and lower secondary schools. These students were taught by 74,501 teachers (66.3% female) in 6,083 schools, of which 614 were private. The upper secondary school system had 337,145 students (46.9% female). They were taught by 13,900 teachers (42.3% female) in 730 schools, of which 240 were private. The tertiary education system had 234,799 students (49.7% female). They were taught by 37,546 teachers (32.8% female) in 367 schools.[26]

See also

Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Switzerland/Education.

Notes and references

  1. "Swissuniversity - University of Basel (UNIBAS)". Retrieved 2016-02-06.
  2. "swissuniversities". Retrieved 2016-02-06.
  3. 1 2 Education at a Glance 2015: OECD Indicators. OECD Publishing. 2015. ISBN 978-92-64-24208-1.
  4. "Mueller Science - Schweizer Nobelpreisträger Nobelpreise Schweiz - Swiss Nobel Prizes - Nobel Prize Winners Switzerland". Retrieved 5 February 2016.
  5. Goetz, Ulrich (2009-09-07). "Switzerland's Nobel boom – bust? - SWI". Retrieved 2016-02-06.
  6. "Home". Retrieved 2016-02-06.
  7. "Bildungslandschaft Schweiz 2012/13" (in German and French). Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Bundesamt für Statistik BFS, Sektion Bildungssystem. Retrieved 2015-04-27.
  8. "Bildungslandschaft Schweiz 2012/13 (vereinfacht)" (PDF) (in German and French). Neuchâtel, Switzerland: Bundesamt für Statistik BFS, Sektion Bildungssystem. February 2010. Retrieved 2015-04-27.
  9. Swiss Federal Statistical Office (German) accessed 9 August 2016
  10. 1 2 3 Swiss education server - Lower secondary level: overview accessed 24 June 2010
  11. "International School Consultancy Group > Home". Retrieved 5 February 2016.
  12. 1 2 "International School Consultancy Group > Information > ISC News". Retrieved 5 February 2016.
  13. "The new local". The Economist. 17 December 2014. Retrieved 5 February 2016.
  14. Archived June 24, 2015, at the Wayback Machine.
  15. "Find an IB World School". International Baccalaureate®. Retrieved 5 February 2016.
  16. 1 2 "Education Dataset-Inbound Students". UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
  17. 1 2 "SWITZERLAND: Second top with PhDs - University World News".
  18. 1 2 Swiss Federal Statistical Office - Studierende an den universitären Hochschulen nach Jahr, Fachbereich, Studienstufe, Staatsangehörigkeit und Hochschule (German) accessed 13 September 2016
  19. "IEA: TIMSS 1995". Retrieved 2016-02-06.
  20. TIMSS data, in The Economist March 29th, 1997, p.25
  21. U.S. Department of Education (1998). Pursuing Excellence: A Study of U.S. Twelfth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement in International Context (Report). U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved 7 February 2011.
  22. World Economic Forum, the Global Competitiveness Report accessed 7 February 2011
  23. Swiss education server - Pre-school education accessed 15 August 2013
  25. 1 2 Swiss Federal Statistical Office - Lernende nach Kanton, Jahr und Bildungsstufe (German) accessed 13 September 2016
  26. Swiss Federal Statistical Office Ueberblick - Schulstufen (German) accessed 15 November 2010
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