Switzerland Higher Education: Internationality and the Bologna Process

Switzerland, located in the heart of Europe, has an advantage in forming networks with other European higher education institutions.  Swiss institutions form bilateral agreements to facilitate cooperation with partners who are in the EU.   University cooperation in border regions is particularly strong, considering thousands of people commute to their workplace each day.  Switzerland is an active member of  international organizations, including the European University Association (EUA), the Academic Cooperation Association (ACA), the Network of the Universities of Applied Sciences (UAS NET), the European Association for International Education (EAIE), and the Association of International Educators (NAFSA).  Switzerland also participates as an associated country in the EU Lifelong Learning and Youth in Action programs.[1]

The Bologna Declaration of 1999 has become a contentious issue in European international cooperation.  Known as the “Bologna Process,” the aim of this declaration was to facilitate mobility between higher education institutes in Europe by implementing comparable systems and degrees, including a European credit transfer system.  Swiss universities fully merged into the Bologna system in 2006.

Switzerland’s Federal student union has voiced opposition to the Bologna Process.   Dermont explained that the implementation of the Bologna Declaration has not made it easier for students to move across universities.   Opponents argue that, instead of promoting learning, Bologna is causing students’ education to become a checksheet.  Dermont used the expression “bulimie-leinen” to describe a common complaint with standardized tests used for accreditation: the process of short-term memorization of material and regurgitation of facts.

Another criticism of the Bologna Process is the implementation of uniform Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctoral level divisions.  In Switzerland, most students are guaranteed to continue on to their Master’s studies at university; however, recently University of Basel decided they will become selective with their Master’s programs, allowing only its best students to continue on.  Dermont says this might not be fair to students, since holding only a Bachelor’s degree limits their job opportunities.

Dell’Ambrogio explained the importance of the Bologna Declaration–before the Bologna Process, Europe was a “jungle system.”   The controversy surrounding Bologna arises largely from bureaucratic misunderstanding–the purpose of Bologna was to allow universities to speak a common language in order to promote mobility.  Ministers have taken the declaration and applied it in different ways.  Some universities have used the process to prevent students from studying at a university for ten years largely on the government’s dime.

He also discussed limits to mobility in general: “You can’t hope a system where every student can move anywhere.”  Then, even if students can transfer to other locations, another questions arises: is mobility for everyone, or should only top performing students study in foreign universities?  Also, on an international level, increasing cooperation and integration causes some concern with national “brain drain,” or the best and brightest students leaving the country.

International mobility is a major challenge which will determine the future of Swiss higher education:

“Internationalization, above all the implementation of the Bologna Declaration, is the major determinant of reforms in Switzerland. […] A structural reorganization of Swiss higher education system is being prepared for the period after 2012.  Plans foresee the introduction of a framework law regulating the doctoral/research universities, universities of applied sciences, and universities of teacher education and defining uniform funding principles[…].  Responsibility at the federal level will be concentrated in a single department, and newly created joint bodies shall be entrusted with the overall steering of the higher education system.” [1]

How well will Switzerland adapt to meet these challenges?  As Lenardo said, “Switzerland is a very closed country… Change is very scary in Switzerland.”  This small country which highly values its autonomy may have trouble facing globalizing forces.  Time will tell how Switzerland handles external and internal pressures, specifically with its higher education system.

<–Internal Mobility | Swiss Culture


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