The introduction of vocational school-leaving certificates, and then the polytechnics (or “University of Applied Sciences”, German: Fachhochschulen), was of great importance for Switzerland’s higher education sector. Being a highly developed and globally oriented country, whose education system and vocational training is among the best in the world, Switzerland needs to offer its students attractive opportunities. The state has been very generous in this regard. The federal government and the cantons spend more than CHF 1.8 billion (2015) annually on the polytechnics, and a further CHF 6.8 billions on public universities. The Swiss National Science Foundation also receives CHF 1 billion in annual subsidies. The old apprenticeship system was a one-way street, offering no formal access to other higher education opportunities. Today, vocational school-leaving certificates can lead to further education and training opportunities, offering credible alternatives to academic education. This dual system is regarded as an essential component of public education and has gained international recognition.

Polytechnics as credible alternative to universities

 Despite recent discussion on the easier accessibility and the allegedly decreasing standards of middle schools, the Swiss gymnasium is still widely regarded as an elite secondary education institution, which should be reserved for the best students. This also ensures that companies with apprenticeship programs benefit from talented young people. With only 20% of the Swiss population in position of a vocational school-leaving certificate, the educational potential of the country’s youth is certainly not exhausted. The absence of the polytechnics would lead to under-investment in education and waste valuable young talent. The competitive selection procedure for entry to a gymnasium ensures that academic inheritance plays a very significant role. What this means is that university graduates are more likely to come from an academic family. Polytechnics work against this trend, accepting students from all parts of the society. Large numbers of students from migrant families as well as young professionals from poorer families have profited extensively from access to tertiary education at polytechnics. With their broad practical training, polytechnics are an essential part of Switzerland’s successful integration policy, offering excellent career prospects to ambitious students from migrant families.

The polytechnics were also seen as a solution to the vocational training’s lower financial contribution. While the state paid for almost all the education costs from high-school diploma to the doctoral level, trainees were essentially self-funded in their vocational programs. Trainees pay for their apprenticeship with the simple fact that they are actually trained in their last year of education and are fully capable of joining the professional workforce, although at a relatively low wage-level. Polytechnics are therefore seen as a budgetary compromise between universities and professional apprenticeships.

Diversifying education opportunities instead of overspecialisation

Today, more than 20 years after their slow beginnings, polytechnics offer a wide range of opportunities. The educational offers are so broad that one could even see their contribution as confusing. A general assessment of the quality of the countless educational and training courses is not possible. Apart from many dubious offers, there are numerous educational institutions, which despite their different specialization, claim to function as universities. Additionally, it is striking how broadly tertiary educational institutions are spread out over the country. No less than 62 Swiss cities have higher education institutions, including many small towns. This is an almost unbelievable density for a small country with a population of more than 8 million.

The majority of these education institutions are polytechnics. One could see this as a positive feature of Swiss federalism, but the broad geographic scope of the polytechnics comes with a number of disadvantages. The most significant one is the scattering of important state resources. Since economies of scale are not always present in providing state education, the scattered geographical scope of Swiss higher education institutions makes its difficult to create internationally leading education and research centers. The example of the Munich University of Applied Sciences, which specializes in electrical engineering and computer science, often leading the international higher education rankings, shows that polytechnics can also be very successful internationally. The argument for centralizing universities can also be applied to polytechnics since both are increasingly internationally networked and compete with foreign institutions for students and lecturers. Top-level research is becoming more demanding and complex in many education areas, making the struggle for state resources even more severe. Many countries are therefore intensifying their efforts in tertiary education and are gradually catching up to global leaders. Public education and research institutions are in competition with other state institutions for valuable state subsidies. Switzerland wants to maintain and expand its education sector amidst these government spending compromises. The federal government should recognise the competitive nature of international higher education and direct state efforts to the improvement of tertiary education institutions.

More competitive education instead of political bureaucracy

What would such an education policy look like? In order to further develop Switzerland’s internationally revered education system, it is crucial to maintain domestic and international competition. Although Swiss universities are in direct competition with each other, this competition is heavily determined by the nature of local and regional politics. Educational institutions see competition as public campaigns to ultimately improve access to public funds. However, and perhaps most importantly, cantons see education policies as an integral aspect of local and regional politics. If a neighboring canton invests more in the expansion of the education system, an adequate response turns into a highly politicized process. Economically weaker cantons see tertiary education institutions as an important means of emphasizing their commitment to sustainable economic development. When it comes to federal funding, the Swiss Confederation covers up to 30% of the universities’ and polytechnic’ budgets. Therefore, political collusion between the education institutions becomes a necessity for the sector’s lobbying potential. Due to these budgetary pressures and statutory requirements, education institutions become counter productive and lose focus of their primary objectives of quality higher education.

Excellence through greater autonomy

Higher education institutions need to be freed of political influence to promote effective competition. There is no need for a centralized master plan. A gradual depoliticisation of higher education should force the federal government and the cantons to move away from financial decisions influencing education budgets. In return, the funding pool of potential donors should be broadened and the decision-making autonomy of higher education strengthened. More autonomous higher education institutes can and must acquire more private funds. This also applies to adapting student fees and reaching out to private research initiatives. At the same time, this also creates further incentives for collaboration between higher education institutions. The basis for this is to be able to assess the institution’s own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; just as private companies need to. This could eventually lead to a departure from the current tertiary education model of a full university. For the polytechnics, this could mean that many institutions would need to become more specialized or merge with other research institutions.

An even more realistic approach to foster this development would be the transition from today’s debtor financing to credit financing. On this basis, each student would be credited with a specific amount that could only be used for courses offered by (accredited) higher education institutions. In this way, the universities would have to finance themselves completely through student fees (different fee structures for local and foreign students) and additional private funds. The drive to specialization would promote efficiency and excellence in higher education. Switzerland has all the potential to further its role as a strategic exporter of education.

This article was first published in the February edition of "Schweizer Monat."