Five Quick Points About Switzerland
- A land that embraces diversity, with nearly a quarter of the population composed of immigrants and four official languages
- Highly qualified and skilled labour force
- Very decentralized and diverse education system – international students apply at institutional level
- Finding suitable accommodation can be challenging – international students should research and find housing as soon as possible after being accepted at a school
- Unique VET (higher vocational education and training) model
Location and Geography
Switzerland (officially “the Swiss Confederation”) is a small landlocked nation state in central Europe; its total area is 41,290 square kilometers. Bordering Switzerland are France (west), Germany (north), Austria and Lichtenstein (east), and Italy (south). Switzerland is a diverse land of mountains, lakes, and rich fertile plains: the Jura Mountains in the northwest, the Alps in the south, and the glacier-carved plains of the Central Plateau. The capital city is Bern.
The cool, temperate climate in Switzerland is affected by its landlocked position and by the variations in altitude. This translates to generally cold, cloudy, rainy/snowy winters and cool to warm, cloudy, humid summers with occasional showers. In summer on the plain, temperatures can reach 30ºC. In winter, the temperature rarely drops below 5ºC.
History and Population
First part of the Frankish Empire and then part of the Holy Roman Empire, Switzerland emerged as a modern state in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna. In 1848, the Swiss State was formally established with a tiered system of federal government, local government cantons, and communes. Through World War I and II, Switzerland remained neutral. Since 1945, Switzerland has enjoyed political stability, economic progress, increased social security, and increased openness and tolerance.
Switzerland has a population of around 7.6 million (German 64%, French 20%, Italian 7%, Romantsch less than 1%, other 8%) – and immigrants compose roughly 21% of the population. The average age is 41 years. Switzerland is densely populated, and almost three-quarters of people live in urban areas. As most of the cities, towns, and villages are concentrated in the Mittelland or Midlands, the central plateau area is the most densely populated region in the country. Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romantsch.
Society and Culture
Swiss culture is known for its diversity: there can be marked differences in language, economy, cultural history, cuisine, political persuasions, climate, architecture, and the educational system from region to region and canton to canton. The cultural diversity of Switzerland is evident in the many cultural events. The country is well known for all kinds of winter sports. The International Olympic Committee and FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) headquarters are in Lausanne and Zurich respectively.
The website Swissworld notes the following: “The Swiss themselves are sometimes puzzled about what they have in common apart from their passport, what it is that makes them Swiss. The Swiss say they are held together by the desire to stay united. The general attitude is summed up in the formula ‘unity, but not uniformity.’”
Throughout the 19th century, Switzerland embraced industrialization and developed a reputation for superior workmanship. Today, the economy is based on a highly qualified labour force performing very skilled work in small to medium enterprises which are the backbone of the economy. Banking and insurance, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, micro technology, and high-quality precision instruments are important industries. Swiss watches and chocolates are world famous. In this mature economy, growth is slow and heavily reliant on international trade. The Swiss aim to attain environmentally friendly industries. The currency is Swiss Francs (CHF).
Switzerland’s government, parliament, and courts are organised on three levels. The Swiss Confederation’s constitution sets out the powers of the federal government, (e.g., foreign relations, army, customs examinations and tariffs, value added taxes, legislation on currency, measure and weight, railways, and communications). At the second level of government are the cantons (26) and third, at a more local level, are the communes (just under 3,000).
There are two houses of parliament at the federal level: the National Council (like a House of Representatives) and the Council of States (like a Senate), which represents the cantons. Only the cantons run universities (with the exception of two federal institutes of technology).
Living Conditions and Cost of Living
Depending on the location of the university and personal demand, students will need CHF19,000 to 29,000 (Swiss francs) a year. Average monthly expenses excluding tuition and accommodation costs will be: CHF1,135 (food: 600, cultural activities and leisure: 250, public transport: 70, study materials 100, health care/other insurances 115). Tuition fees can range from CHF1,300 to CHF8,000 per year.
Most Swiss rent accommodation rather than buying. Vacancy rates in Switzerland are very low, accommodation can be expensive and finding accommodation may not be easy. Subsidised accommodation may be available from the universities; however, this is often limited. Flats and apartments can be rented as bare shells. Accommodation should be researched and sourced as soon as possible after acceptance at an educational institution.
The Swiss constitution sets the framework for Swiss education – including that primary school is mandatory and free when offered in public schools – but the practical authority for the education system resides with the cantons. Therefore education is very diverse in Switzerland: in the school sector (primary and secondary) there are essentially 26 different public education systems.
In terms of higher education, there are 10 cantonal autonomous universities and two federal institutes of technology. Higher vocational education and training (VET) is a Swiss specialty, and provides tertiary-level courses (up to diploma level) and focuses on skills for professional and management positions. Basic VET is provided at secondary school level. VET is the joint responsibility of the federal government, cantons, and professional associations. The Swiss Education Server website (www.educa.ch) notes that the Swiss VET system “serves the purpose of senior staff training and specialisation of individuals who have completed a three- to four-year basic vocational education and training, or who have achieved an equivalent qualification.”
In terms of universities, there are two categories: (1) traditional universities (cantonal universities and Federal Institutes of Technology and (2) universities of applied sciences, including universities of art and music as well as universities of teacher education. International students should check carefully into the various universities in terms of language preference, because different languages of instruction occur across the university spectrum. While English is widely spoken throughout Switzerland, the majority of undergraduate programmes are taught in German, French, or Italian. The student will have to show command of the language of instruction for admission.
To enter a university, students must meet the qualification entry requirements, usually Matura or its equivalent. Otherwise they may be required to sit an entrance examination prior to acceptance. As the universities are independent, applications are made directly to the university or institute of technology.
Information Specific to International Students
International students from outside the EU/EFTA must contact the Swiss embassy or consulate in their own country to first check if they require a student visa, and apply for a visa prior to entering Switzerland. Depending on the canton of study, this visa process can take two to three months; therefore, it is important for international students to consult their chosen educational institution in Switzerland as well. Further, within 14 days of entering Switzerland, EU/EFTA students must register with the local authority (Einwohnerkontrolle, Residents\' Registration Office) at their place of residence and apply for a residence permit. Often universities provide support for international students with visa and study permit registration.
Anyone who lives in Switzerland for three months, including international students, must have basic health insurance coverage. Students who have international mutual coverage may be exempt from taking out the compulsory Swiss health insurance. International students may work while studying; however, there is usually a maximum of 15–20 hours a week allowed. Course duration will not be extended on the basis of gainful employment commitments.