Pursuing a Bachelor Degree in Switzerland

Marilyn Stelzner – Independent University Adviser
(ISP’s list of University courses in Switzerland can be found here).
Where will your children attend university? Depending upon the age of your children, you might not have given this question much thought, though you most likely have some default expectations.  Perhaps you assume they will attend the same university you or your spouse did, or that they will stay in Switzerland.
Maybe you are not certain where your family will be living when your child reaches university age, or where your child will want to start a career.
As the parent of a child in an international school in Switzerland, questions about university can be much more difficult for you to answer than for most parents around the world, and many decisions will necessarily be postponed until close to the time your child is ready to apply. But in the meantime, it is important to have a basic understanding of:

  • The many options available in countries where local international school students most typically apply.
  • How the university admissions systems work in those countries.
  • How the type of secondary school qualification a student attains impacts the application process.
  • How to keep options open when there are a lot of uncertainties in your family’s future.

Rest assured that great choices await your children. While many international school students opt to go to university in another country, others purse great higher educational options close to home in Switzerland. The Swiss system of higher education has many attractions for students and families who plan to stay in Switzerland long-term, and a significant percentage of local international school students do study towards a bachelor degree in Switzerland.
Naturally, not all Swiss options are open to all students. With a focus on the Lac Leman region, this article provides an overview of the higher educational options in Switzerland and discusses major criteria determining which ones are open to your child.  Some choices made regarding your child’s international school education can factor into their later choices, including:

  1. The language of instruction and their preparation for university-level study in a given language.
  2. The diploma your child receives at the end of secondary education.
  3. Your child’s marks and the specific subjects studied.

The Swiss System of Higher Education
The Swiss system of tertiary education has undergone major reorganisation since 1999, partially in response to the Bologna Accords, a process where 47 countries voluntarily work towards comparable and compatible degree programs throughout Europe.  The goals of the Bologna process include free movement for further study or employment from one country to another (within the European Higher Education Area), promoting Europe as a destination for study and work, and greater convergence between higher education in the U.S. and Europe. Within Switzerland, a joint inter-university agreement promotes cooperation and exchanges between universities and enables students to continue their studies at another type of university under certain predefined conditions.
There are four types of academic institutions of higher education in Switzerland:

  1. The Swiss university system is composed of ten cantonal universities and two federal institutes of technology.
  2. Swiss universities of applied sciences and arts (UAS) provide science-based and practice-oriented education that prepares students for specific professions.
  3. Swiss universities of teacher education (UTE) are responsible for providing basic and continuing teacher education.
  4. An increasing number of private institutions of higher education offer bachelor and masters degree programs.

Terminology is always a challenge in Switzerland, so this table shows the English terms used in this article and the equivalents in the major Swiss languages.

  Suisse Romande German-Speaking Cantons Ticino
University Université Universität Università
University of Applied Sciences and Arts Hautes écoles spécialisées (HES) Fachhochschulen Scuole Universitarie Professionali
University of Teacher Education (UTE) Hautes écoles pédagogiques (HEP) Pädagogische Hochschulen Alte scuole pedagogiche

The University System
The twelve Swiss universities are the only research universities in Switzerland that are allowed to confer doctoral degrees. Bachelor degree programs at these institutions typically last three years, with Masters programs an additional one to two years. In many fields, a bachelor is not considered a terminal degree so students need to plan on continuing on to a Masters program, though not necessarily at the same university. Unlike universities in some countries, Swiss universities seem to have more than adequate funding and to be continuously pursuing new and exciting initiatives.
The three universities located in the Lac Léman region have French as the primary language of instruction:

  • The Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) has bachelor programs in architecture, engineering, computer science, mathematics, physics and chemistry.
  • University of Geneva offers bachelor programs in arts and humanities, mathematics and natural sciences, social science, and economics, international relations, law, theology, translation and interpretation, medicine, and teacher training. The HEC Geneva, part of the university, has bachelor programs in business and information technology.
  • The University of Lausanne (UNIL) has bachelor programs in theology and religious studies, law, forensic science, arts and humanities, social sciences, sport sciences and physical education, geosciences and the environment, biology, medicine, pharmaceutical and sciences. The HEC Lausanne, part of UNIL, offers bachelor programs in Business and Economics.

EPFL is highly rated in world rankings of universities, such as the Shanghai rankings, and is actively hiring some of the best intellects in the world.   The cantonal universities in Geneva and Lausanne also show up in the top 150 universities worldwide.
The only bachelor courses currently offered by Swiss universities instruction in English are English language and literature studies. Bachelor students must, therefore, have a high level facility with French to be successful. Students are required to take a language exam unless they are native French speakers or went to a secondary school with French as the language of instruction.
Students, who obtain the Swiss Maturité certificate, either from a private or local school, automatically gain access to Swiss universities. Programs in medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, and chiropractic require entrance examinations when the number of applicants for admission in any given year exceeds the space available.
Note that a downside to Swiss universities is the difficulty of staying in once you enrol. Students considering Swiss universities should be aware that a high percentage of students do not complete or pass the first year, although some repeat the first year and pass on a second attempt.
Swiss universities admit students who apply with an IB Diploma, A Levels, and other “foreign” secondary school qualifications, provided that they have taken specified subjects and met certain minimum marks.  If your child is considering applying to a Swiss university, be sure that the courses they take in upper secondary school meet the admission criteria. Since the challenge of being successful in Swiss universities seems greater for students with non-Swiss qualifications, ask your child’s school about the experiences of previous graduates to understand your child’s likelihood of success. Students entering EPFL should consider the yearlong CMS preparatory course or the Polymaths course, foundation programs in math and science.
The following table of admission requirements is provided for reference purposes only and may not be current. Refer to the university website for the latest information.
Table 1. Minimum requirements for admission to Swiss universities

  IBDP A Levels APs
EPFL  38/42 points (w/out bonus points)

  • HL in maths, in physics or chemistry plus one modern language
  • 3 SL courses from the specified fields

The CMS preparatory year is required if above 32/42 points and course requirements are met.

3 A-levels (including maths + chemistry or physics + one language) + 4 GCSEs; no grade below B Entrance exam complete/reduced

  • American diploma covering a specified set of subjects.
  • At least 3 AP exams w/ score of 3, in Mathematics, (one of Physics, Chemistry or Biology), a modern language
UNIL, UGE 32/42 points (without bonus points)

  • Math or Science at HL, other subjects restricted


3 A-levels (incl. maths or one science)+ 1 GCE AS + 2 GCSE, no grade below C 5 AP exams: must include two languages, mathematics, history, and a science subject (chemistry, biology or physics). Minimum score for AP Tests: 3

  • Not all AP exams are recognized

With fees for Swiss nationals and permanent residents (C permit) of approximately 1,000 – 1,500 CHF per year, the advantage of staying in Switzerland seems obvious. However, some of the potential savings of the low fees for university is offset by the high cost of living and the possible need for students to repeat a year.
Since English is widely used in business, science and technology, students who have not had English as their language of instruction in secondary school benefit from spending time in an English academic environment. Swiss universities offer options to study abroad in the US, UK, or other English-speaking countries, and many Masters programs are in English.
The Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts (UAS)
While Swiss universities focus on academic subjects and pure research, Switzerland has regionally organised universities of applied sciences and arts (UAS), or Hautes Ecoles Specialisées (HES) to provide a more practice-oriented education and to perform applied research and development.  Frequent exchanges between faculty and practitioners in industry keep programs attuned to needs of the labour market so graduates typically leave with excellent job prospects,
The Haute Ecole Spécialisé de Suisse Occidentale (HES-SO) is a collection of 27 schools of higher education in the Suisse Romande with bachelor programs in:

  • Business, management and services
  • Engineering and information technology
  • Social work, psychology
  • Healthcare, nursing
  • Architecture, building engineering and planning
  • Chemistry and life sciences
  • Agriculture and Forestry
  • Music and the arts
  • Hospitality management

Campuses are scattered around the region. A few English-language bachelor programs at Swiss universities of applied science exist in the areas of hospitality management, business administration, and management and information technology, such as the International Business Management program at the Haute École De Gestion in Geneva.
Admission criteria and processes for UAS bachelor programs differ by the field of study, so check the website for each course, or contact the institution directly for details. General cut-offs for marks on non-Swiss qualifications are typically not published. Many of the haute écoles admit students who have previously completed a pre-professional or professional qualification that included significant work experience. As a result, students from international schools might be required to spend a year working in their desired field before starting at the UAS. For example, an IB student who is accepted at the École Hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL) might be told to first spend a year working an entry-level position at a hotel or restaurant.
The renowned EHL is part of HES-SO through a unique public/private arrangement with subsidised fees for Swiss nationals and permanent residents. EHL has top-ranked programs preparing students for the hospitality industry and is a popular destination for international school students with bachelor programs in both French and English.  EHL has its own rigorous and holistic admission process and publishes minimum academic qualifications for international school students on their website. Applicants who pass a first evaluation of their business, organisational, relationship and artistic skills are invited to a Selection Day of exams, an interview, and a role-playing exercise. Approximately one in three applicants are accepted.
There are separate Haute Écoles for visual arts, music, and theatre arts, such as ECAL, the art school in Lausanne, and the HEM in Geneva, which evolved from the original Conservatoire de Musique de Genève. Schools in the arts, music, and theatre require a demonstration of talent, including an audition or submission of a portfolio, and/or exams. Sometimes a foundation year program, such as the one at ECAL, can replace a year of experience in the field.
Universities of Teacher Training
The universities of teacher education (UTE) replaced previous forms of teacher training in Switzerland in 2001. Based on the same principles as the UAS, most UTEs are independent institutions offering practice-oriented training. HEP-Vaud in Lausanne has bachelor programs for training preschool and primary level teachers, as well as Masters programs for teaching at the secondary level. Teachers in Geneva are trained in the Institut Universitaire de Formation des Enseignants, (IUFE), which is part of the University of Geneva.
Private Institutions of Higher Education
In addition to Swiss universities and UASs, private institutions of higher education provide local options for students who want to study in English for a bachelor degree in Switzerland. Private institutions attract students who may not be admissible to Swiss institutions, or who want to pursue certain specialised fields. Non-profit foundations operate some private institutions, while others are operated on a for-profit basis.
Webster University in Geneva is one of two American colleges in Switzerland offering 4-year bachelor programs in a range of fields. Webster’s Geneva campus is a branch of Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, which has additional campuses in London, Leiden, Vienna, Thailand, and China. Webster has bachelor programs in business and management, computer science, European studies, history, international relations, media communications, photography, and psychology. Webster is accredited in the United States.
Franklin College in Lugano, an independent liberal arts college accredited in both the US and in Switzerland, offers bachelor programs in the arts and humanities, international relations, and international business and economics. Graduates of both colleges go on to pursue post-graduate education in Swiss universities and other universities around the world.
Other institutions of higher education located in Switzerland focus on courses in one specific area, primarily hotel management and business, with many courses taught in English. The admissions processes for these programs range from being easy access to highly selective, with fees ranging as high as 50,000 CHF per year.
The Swiss government does not regulate the establishment of private institutions of higher education, so anyone can set one up and the interests of investors may conflict with the interests of students. It can be difficult to judge schools that have not existed long enough to develop a significant track record.
Doing Your Research
No matter what type of course your child is considering, it is critical that you both do your research. Start early to ensure that your child studies the required subjects. Discuss whether a course suits your child and his or her likelihood of success. What is the process for changing to a different course if it comes to that?
Take a careful look at the school’s accreditations, which in some fields may impact future access to professional licensure and practice. The accreditation of the school that awards a bachelor degree can also influence options for post-graduate study. The most valuable accreditations are those from a governmental or regional accrediting organization. Be on the lookout for accreditation agencies created to provide an air of credibility to schools but without a meaningful quality review process.
Visit each school and ask lots of questions. Check the website for a schedule of open days and make an effort to be there. Investigate faculty credentials and where graduates go after they leave. Is there an active alumni network graduates can use? The easier it is for students to be admitted to a course, the more questions you should ask. Even rankings or league tables, as well as online reviews, might not be trustworthy so scrutinise the source.
Although great options for earning a bachelor degree exist in Switzerland, many international school students do not find one that works for them. Those students who want to live and work in Switzerland but attend university elsewhere may choose to pursue one of the many Swiss Masters degree programs offered in English in order to build their local network before starting a career here.

As an independent university adviser, Marilyn Stelzner provides strategic consulting on a one-on-one basis to students applying to both public and private universities in North America and Europe. To contact Marilyn or to find more information about university options for for your student, go to www.GlobalUniversityChoices.com.

Be sure to check out ISP’s list of Universities in Switzerland here!

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