The university system
The Swiss system
The legal bases
According to the Federal Constitution (Art. 63a Cst.), the Confederation and the cantons are jointly responsible for coordinating and ensuring quality assurance in the Swiss university system.
Three legislative texts have been drawn up to implement this constitutional mandate, namely the:
- Federal Act on Funding and Coordination of the Swiss Higher Education Sector Higher Education Act (HEdA; Loi sur l’encouragement et la coordination des hautes écoles, LEHE), a coordination and promotion tool that defines the objectives and principles of coordination and specifies the organisational details of the procedure.
- Intercantonal Agreement on the Swiss Higher Education Sector (Higher Education Agreement), which governs cooperation between the concordant cantons and the Confederation in order to ensure coordination in the higher education sector.
- Agreement between the Confederation and the cantons on cooperation in the higher education sector (CCoop-HE) which creates joint bodies, namely: the Swiss University Conference; the Rectors’ Conference, and the Swiss Accreditation Council.
The three types of universities
The HEdA governs the entire university sector. There are three types of universities:
- The universities (hautes écoles universitaires, HEU) include the Federal Institutes of Technology, traditional universities, and university institutions. They offer specific teaching focused on basic research and ensure the education of the next generation of university students.
- Universities of applied sciences (UAS; hautes écoles spécialisées, HES) carry out teaching and research activities in one or more professional fields. They provide practice-oriented scientific education and applied research and development.
- Universities of Teacher Education (UTE; hautes écoles pédagogiques, HEP) are similar to UAS but specialise in professional pedagogical fields (e.g. teacher training).
The Confederation is the responsible authority for the two Federal Institutes of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) and Zurich (ETHZ). The cantons, generally, are the responsible authorities for the other universities.
All universities and institutions in the federal and cantonal higher education sector have their own legal bases, adopted by the authorities responsible for them.
In Switzerland, the accredited university landscape includes 10 cantonal universities, 9 universities of applied sciences (including the HES-SO), 14 universities of teacher education, 2 federal institutes of technology, and other institutions in the field.
The Higher Education Act (HEdA; Loi sur l’encouragement et la coordination des hautes écoles, LEHE) requires all universities to be institutionally accredited in order to be recognised as part of the Swiss Higher Education Sector.
Swiss institutional accreditation under the HEdA is a guarantee of quality and national and international recognition. It aims to ensure that the Swiss university landscape meets high standards in teaching, research, and services on a continuous basis.
Institutional accreditation is a sine qua non condition for:
- The right to the designation “university”, “university of applied sciences”, “university of teacher education” as well as compound or derived forms, such as “university institute” or “institute of higher education level”. This provision also applies to these designations in languages other than the national languages. Names that remain possible without accreditation are, for example, “Academy”, “School” or “Institute”.
- The granting of federal contributions.
- Accreditation of degree programmes (although optional).
Accreditation is decided by the Swiss Accreditation Council (SAC) on the basis of an evaluation, usually carried out by the Swiss Agency of Accreditation and Quality Assurance (AAQ).
The SAC may recognise other Swiss or foreign accreditation agencies if they meet the requirements of Article 2 of the guidelines of the Swiss Accreditation Council on the Recognition of Agencies for Accreditation under the HEdA (recognition guidelines) of 11 December 2015. The SAC currently recognises the following accreditation agencies: the AAQ, ACQUIN, AHPGS, AQ Austria, Evalag, and the FIBAA.
List of accreditations in Switzerland
The HEdA came into force in January 2015. The universities accredited in Switzerland are listed in two places :
The canton of Vaud has no recognition procedure for private tertiary education institutions. It relies on the HEdA.
An integrated system at European level
Coordination of education in Switzerland in relation to the European framework
The joint declaration of the 29 European Ministers of Education, meeting in Bologna on 19 June 1999, contributed to the creation of a European Higher Education Area. This “Bologna Declaration” is at the origin of the process of convergence of the higher education systems of European countries (comparable degrees, development of mobility, quality assurance, use of the European Credit Transfer System ECTS, etc.).
As a signatory country, Switzerland had integrated these international provisions into its national law. Guidelines for the coordinated renewal of education in the framework of the Bologna Process have been proposed for universities, for universities of applied sciences (UAS), and for universities of teacher education (UTE).
In 2019, these directives were repealed and replaced by the Ordinance of the University Council on the Coordination of Education in Swiss Universities of 29 November 2019. This ordinance regulates study cycles, admission to and transfer between study cycles, the ECTS credit system, the uniform designation of titles, permeability, and mobility within and between universities, UAS and UTE, and between these types of higher education institutions, as well as continuing education.
Erasmus+ is the European Union’s programme for education, training, youth, and sport. It is one of the world’s most important instruments for promoting study abroad and institutional cooperation.
Since the suspension of negotiations in February 2014 on Switzerland’s association with Erasmus+ 2014-2020, a transitional solution was put into place for 2014 to 2017 at the Swiss level to ensure European – and international – mobility in all fields of education.
This transitional solution, called the “Swiss-European Mobility Programme” (SEMP), and initially planned for 2014 to 2017, was finally extended as the “Swiss solution for Erasmus+” until the end of 2020. The SEMP supports students, teachers, and other university staff in organising time-limited stays abroad (mainly in Europe). The programme covers mobility from Switzerland to abroad and from abroad to Switzerland.
Switzerland participates in the Erasmus+ programme with third-country status. This allows Swiss institutions to continue to participate in Erasmus+ cooperation projects as project partners, although their participation options are limited and are not EU-funded. Under the transitional measures, Swiss institutions wishing to participate in this way can apply for financial support from the Swiss national agency, Movetia.
With regard to Erasmus+ 2021-2027, the Federal Council is committed to Switzerland’s full association and intends to conduct negotiations to this end as soon as the general state of relations between Switzerland and the EU allows for it.
The 26 May 2021 announcement that negotiations on the institutional framework agreement with the European Union were halted has had direct implications for Switzerland’s association status with the European Union’s 9th Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (FPRI9), known as “Horizon Europe”.
Following this decision, the European Commission announced in the Horizon Europe guide published on 17 June 2021 that Switzerland will have the status of “non-associated third country”. This status allows Swiss scientists to participate, at the Confederation’s expense, in approximately two-thirds of Horizon Europe, in particular in most collaborative projects.
In order to remedy this situation, the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) has committed to directly funding Swiss scientists participating in collaborative projects or having received a positive decision on an application for a European Research Council (ERC) grant.
In parallel, the SERI is exploring different options to compensate for the funding of Horizon Europe components that are no longer available.
Swiss political actors in the field of higher education
The SERI is the federal government’s specialised agency responsible for education, research and innovation.
It carries out the tasks entrusted to it in cooperation with the cantons, professional partners, university institutions and bodies, and the institutions and bodies responsible for promoting research and innovation.
- It is the interlocutor of the national and international authorities and institutions in its field of competence; it represents the Confederation in national forums and Switzerland in international forums.
- In addition, the SERI is responsible for recognising cantonal “Maturas” (high school exit degrees) and establishing the level of equivalence of foreign professional qualifications and diplomas and certificates in the fields of vocational education and training and universities of applied sciences.
- The Confederation is also responsible for the promotion of research and innovation and for international cooperation. The main bodies for this promotion are the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), which promotes basic research in all disciplines on behalf of the Confederation, and Innosuisse, which is the Confederation’s agency for the promotion of innovation. The Swiss Science and Innovation Council (SSIC) is the advisory body to the Federal Council for issues related to science, higher education, and research and innovation policy.
swissuniversities is the Rectors’ Conference of the Swiss Universities and became operational on 1 January 2015 with the entry into force of the HEdA.
It aims to strengthen and develop collaboration between Swiss universities and to promote the common expression of the Swiss university landscape.
The Rectors’ Conference has the following tasks and responsibilities:
- It issues statements related to the affairs of the Swiss Conference of Higher Education Institutions and submits requests to the latter on behalf of the universities.
- In addition, it represents the interests of the Swiss universities at the national and international levels. It can receive mandates from the federal government and lead the programmes and projects.
- It also operates an information centre for the academic recognition of the equivalence of domestic and foreign university diplomas (Swiss ENIC; responsibility for issuing professional licences falls under the purview of the political institutions).
The EDK bases its work on legally-binding intercantonal agreements (or concordats). It acts in a subsidiary capacity – in other words, fulfilling the tasks that the cantons or regions cannot assume. The EDK is made up of the 26 cantonal ministers of education. It issues recommendations for the cantons, adopts positions on current issues, and represents the cantons in dealings with the federal government and international organisations. The EDK is also the forum for the cantons for developing and implementing their common education policy concerning:
- Access to, and financing of, studies at universities for students from outside the canton (Intercantonal Agreement on Universities, AIU; Intercantonal Agreement on Universities of Applied Sciences, AHES).
- The recognition of foreign teaching and educational diplomas.
- Scholarships (intercantonal agreement of 18 June 2009 on the harmonisation of scholarship schemes).
The EDK is also organised into four regional conferences, ensuring local implementation and coordination, and consulting in different cultural areas on issues and proposals submitted to the EDK; these are:
- The Intercantonal Conference on Public Education in Western Switzerland and Ticino (CIIP); created in 1874, it is the oldest conference – BE, FR, GE, JU, NE, TI, VD, VS.
- The Conference of Directors of Education of Northwestern Switzerland (NW EDK) – AG, BS, BL, BE (German), FR, LU, SO, VS (German).
- The Conference of Directors of Education of Central Switzerland (BKZ) – LU, UR, SZ, NW, OW, ZG.
- The Conference of Directors of Education of Eastern Switzerland (EDK-Ost) – AI, AR, GL, GR, SG, SH, SZ, TG, ZH (+ Liechtenstein).
The Swiss University Conference (Conférence Suisse des hautes écoles. CSHE) is the highest political body of the universities. It complies with the Constitution, which stipulates that the Confederation and the cantons shall jointly ensure coordination in the field of higher education. The CSHE meets in a plenary conference or in a Council of Universities.
The Council of Universities deals with matters that concern the tasks of the university authorities, such as the enactment of regulations on study cycles and the transition from one cycle to another, mobility, and accreditation. In addition, the Council is responsible, among other things, for defining the characteristics of the various types of universities and for coordinating university policy at national level, as well as for the division of tasks in particularly costly areas.
The SAC is the joint body of the federal government and cantons for accreditation and quality assurance in the Swiss higher education sector and the accreditation authority for the accreditation procedures pursuant to the HEdA. It publishes the list of universities that have been accredited under the HEdA.
When the HEdA and the accreditation obligation came into force, a decision was made to create a single official list. According to Art. 20 of the Accreditation Ordinance, the Swiss Accreditation Council is responsible for publishing the list of accredited universities and institutions as well as study programmes.
The Accreditation Council is currently composed of twenty independent members representing, among others, universities, the business community, students, intermediary bodies, and teachers.
The AAQ guarantees and promotes the quality of teaching and research at Swiss universities. It is independent, works with internationally-recognised methods, and draws on the knowledge and experience of renowned experts.
The AAQ develops guidelines and quality standards, carries out accreditation and evaluation procedures, and is active at the international level. It sees itself as an external partner in the field of quality assurance and quality improvement and provides support through various services. The AAQ is under the authority of the Swiss Accreditation Council.