“Diversity is the richness of this country.” –Dr. Dell’Ambrogio, Swiss State Secretary for Education and Research
There are cultural divisions within Switzerland which play into its higher education system. Switzerland is divided into four language regions: German in the North (64% of the population), French in the West (20%), Italian in the South (6.5%), and a small section of Romansh in the East (less than 1%) . There are differing cultural attitudes towards higher education between the language regions. For example, Dr. Dell’Ambrogio explained that the Swiss-German region allows for better job opportunities despite the level of degree. However, the Swiss-French or Swiss-Italian regions value higher degrees more importance.
When visiting the Università della Svizzera Italiana (USI) in Lugano, we spoke to Giorgia di Lenardo, an advisor, provided more insight into the Swiss-Italian region which, as she said, is politically undervalued. The university—the first in the Italian speaking region of Switzerland—was just founded in 1996; since then, enrollment has increased from 300 students to 2,800.
More than two-thirds of the Swiss population lives in urban areas (Studying in Switzerland). Lenardo explained that the cultural norm in Switzerland is for students to remain in Switzerland, but to travel to the larger cities (e.g. Zurich, Basel) for opportunities. We asked whether students from similar language regions tend to gather together at universities; she affirmed that this does happen (particularly with the Ticinese, or Swiss-Italians); however, she also believes that student mobility in Switzerland is allowing students from different regions to become closer, especially with cooperation in Masters research.
Swiss universities offer limited fields of study—for example, there is a marked difference in between USI and ETH Zurich. ETH Zurich is an engineering, science and technology focused university; whereas USI students tend to focus on business (the university is located in Lugano, the third largest banking city in Switzerland). USI aims to keep classes small by splitting up courses more to meet increasing enrollment and even plans on opening a second campus in the near future. Though class sizes vary between majors, large classes are common at ETHZ. At Swiss-German universities, professors are generally held high in rank and regard and receive significant research grant money; also, there is not much student-professor interaction. At USI, the gap between authority figures and students seems smaller—in that the University President walks around talking to students and leaving his office always open every day.