Higher education in Switzerland
Why Switzerland is a popular higher education destination for foreigners
With a long tradition in providing educational excellence, Switzerland proves a popular choice for the international student. This article examines its higher education system, and why it is popular with students from abroad and scientists alike.
Higher education institutions in Switzerland
Swiss universities have an enviable reputation around the world. Indeed, no less than seven are featured in the top 200 of QS World Rankings (2019). It is a country with a long tradition of higher education. Its first university was founded in 1460 at Basel. As a result of sustained academic progress over the centuries, Switzerland is now home to some of Europe’s most renowned higher educational systems.
There are twelve state-run universities in Switzerland. Of those, ten are cantonal, and two are federal institutes of technology. The differences between them are slight. Cantonal universities are operated and managed by individual cantons, and federal institutes of technology are run directly by the government of Switzerland. Canton is the traditional Swiss form of an administrative area. There are twenty-six such areas within Switzerland.
The differences, whilst small, do impact the structure of the institutions. The federal institutions are aligned in structure to American universities, thus making it easier for foreign students to transfer there.
As well as these twelve institutions, there are two other types of university; the eight Universities of Applied Sciences and the Arts (UASAs), which provide scientific and professional education, and the twenty Universities of Teacher Education (UTEs), which offer practice-oriented teaching education.
Doctorates can only be obtained at universities and federal institutes of technology.
Higher education opportunities in Switzerland
Overall, 16.9 per cent of higher education enrolment in Switzerland came from abroad – the tenth highest in the world in 2013. The country also enjoys a high rate of PhD students; indeed, Swiss nationals have the highest rate of citizens in the world to hold doctoral degrees, which exhibits the country’s academic excellence – which may be why it is a popular choice for foreign students.
Almost a quarter of foreign students come from Germany, with 16 per cent from France, 11 per cent from Italy, and 4 per cent from China.
The opportunities for foreign students are increasing all the time – in the 2000/2001 academic year, only 20 per cent of all students were international.
Percentage of foreign students by institution (top 200 world ranking for foreign students)
Percentage of foreign students
World ranking by percentage of foreign students, 2018
Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPF Lausanne)
University of Geneva
Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zürich)
Those who wish to enrol at a Swiss university must earn a state-recognised Swiss matriculation certificate (Matura), or a qualification of equal value for a foreign student.
Language fluency is required and is determined by the language taught in the class – remember Switzerland has four official languages, including French, German, Italian and Romansh.
Higher education expenses in Switzerland
Public expenditure for research is mainly the result of personal initiatives on the part of the researchers. The Swiss Confederation is responsible for providing research funding through two federal agencies – the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the Innosuisse (formerly the Commission for Innovation and Technology). The cantons are responsible for managing and co-funding cantonal universities and Universities of Applied Sciences.
Research and Development expenditure in 2012
In CHF (millions)
Public Sector *
Other National Sources
* Confederation: 2,835 (in CHF (millions)), 14.2 in %; Cantons: 1,870 (in CHF (millions)), 9.4 in %
Cost of higher education in Switzerland / Switzerland tuition fees
Unlike other countries in Europe, there is not a standard tuition fee scheme in Switzerland. For international students, the annual fee at general universities are between EUR 650 and EUR 1,000, although there are some exceptions. For example, the University of Italian Switzerland (Università della Svizzera italiana, USI) charges around EUR 2,600. International students are encouraged to check with the institution they wish to study at. Generally, Switzerland is considered on the lower-scale of fee-paying university countries.
Quality of higher education in Switzerland
In terms of categories by which universities are measured – teaching, research, knowledge and international outlook, institutions in Switzerland are ranked consistently high in their performance.
The highest-ranking – the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, ETH Zürich) – is focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The institution has produced more than 20 Nobel laureate prize winners, and former students include Albert Einstein.
University Ranking (Top 200) – QS and THE, 2018-2019
QS ranking (2019)
THE ranking (2018)
University of Zurich
University of Geneva
University of Bern
University of Basel
University of Lausanne
Source: QS World University Ranking/Times Higher Education
With our job newsletter, you will receive suitable job ads as well as interesting content matching your search profile on a weekly basis.
Current search terms:
After registering, you will be able to adjust your profile.
Working in higher education in Switzerland
Switzerland offers highly-paid positions within academia. Being from Switzerland is not normally a pre-requisite for the position. Scholars, and those particularly from French, German and Italian-speaking backgrounds work right across the higher education system. The number of international professors can be very high – for example over half the teaching staff at the University of Zurich are international.
Depending on whether the institution is within a German or French speaking canton, there can be different titles to positions within the hierarchical order. The lowest rung on the career ladder is generally the research assistant or reader, which in German would be Hilfassistent/in or in French maître-assistant.
In French-speaking cantons, a PhD is required for all positions above maître-assistant. In German-speaking cantons, it is common for PhD candidates to work as research assistants or lecturer.
Looking towards future career development, lack of funding can be an obstacle to career advancement – not uncommon within the academic world. Age can also be a barrier if you have not obtained self-contained university teaching (habilitation, doctorate) by the age of 35.
Salaries are considered highly attractive – research assistants have a starting salary of EUR 40,410, reaching EUR 46,724 by the third year. Post doctorates can expect to start on EUR 51,396 a year reaching EUR 56,700 by the third year.