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Higher Education in Switzerland

Universities in Switzerland can be proud of their academic tradition, which goes back to the 15th century. Today, some of them are among the leading universities in the world, and they attract plenty of international students. Read more on higher education in Switzerland in our expat guide.
International and local students alike will benefit greatly from the excellent standards of higher education in Switzerland.

At a Glance:

  • Swiss universities offer classes in a variety of languages, including German, French, Italian, and English.
  • Make sure that you meet all the necessary language requirements when applying to a Swiss university; not all programs are offered in English.
  • The three types of vocational training programs offered in Switzerland prepare young adults for over 230 different occupations.

Where Swiss Students Go to University

The first Swiss university was founded in the city of Basel in 1460, where medicine was practiced. Today, Switzerland is home to one of Europe’s most renowned higher education systems. With programs commonly taught in Italian, German, French, and English, it is often easier for international students to attend Swiss universities than in other European countries.

There are twelve universities to choose from in Switzerland. Of these twelve universities, ten are cantonal universities and two are federal institutes of technology. The difference between cantonal universities and federal institutes of technology is minor; cantonal universities are operated and managed by the individual cantons, whereas the federal institutes of technology are directly run by the government of Switzerland.

While these differences are small, they do impact the structure of the programs offered. For example, the federal institutes of technology follow a system similar to American universities; this makes it easier for foreign students to transfer there, as well as simpler to compare the institutes’ rankings with other universities all across the globe. 

Swiss universities are famous across the world, and eight are featured in the top 300 of QS World University Rankings 2016-2017. The QS World University Rankings feature 916 universities in 81 countries around the world. The rankings are based on six principles: academic reputation, employer reputation, student-to-faculty ratio, citations per faculty, international faculty ratio, and international student ratio. According to the QS World rankings, the two Swiss federal institutes of technology — EPFL and ETH Zurich — are both listed in the top 30. 

Top-Ranking Universities in Switzerland

Business Schools in Switzerland

Aside from the prestigious universities mentioned above, there are also many well-known business schools in Switzerland. In addition to international students, plenty of Swiss students attend these business schools as well. They seem to appreciate the schools’ multinational student population, which fosters an atmosphere of cultural awareness and diversity, and the opportunity to jump-start their careers, which business schools often provide.

At the time of writing (i.e. November 2016), all of the business schools below have at least one international recognized accreditation, as well as international partner universities.

Applying to a Swiss University

If you would like to attend a university in Switzerland, you need to apply to each university directly through its website. The entrance requirements are rather similar for each university, but they all make admission decisions differently. If you are interested in applying, you should complete the application form on the respective university’s webpage.

Take into consideration that not all of the universities have courses taught in English; before you apply, make sure that the course you want to take is offered in a language that you speak fluently. There are three levels of language understanding according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR); these levels are A (basic user), B (independent user), and C (proficient user). This system was made to compare the language competency of European students.

The fluency requirements for universities in Switzerland are C2 in English, French, German, or Italian, depending on the language that classes are taught in. If you are not a native speaker, you have to take a certified test ensuring your fluency; do not forget to make sure that the university approves of the one you plan on taking.

General Admission Requirements

The universities in Switzerland all have slightly different admission requirements. However, in general they all require these documents:

  • a completed application form for your selected course
  • an up-to-date or recent passport-sized photograph of you
  • a notarized copy of your foreign certificates (high school diploma, bachelor’s diploma, etc.)
  • personal motivation letter
  • language skills as proven by TOEFL, TestDaf, or or another officially recognized fluency test for non-native speakers

You should always double-check the entry specifics to each course on the university’s webpage or directly contact their admissions office.  

Vocational Education and Training

The vocational programs available in Switzerland prepare young adults for about 230 different occupations and are therefore crucial to Switzerland’s tertiary economy. For those students who chose the vocational track in high school, there are many vocational programs to choose from throughout Switzerland.

When teenagers finish their first part of secondary school, they must usually take an entrance examination to enroll at a full-time vocational school. However, students can often substitute this examination with their past grades from lower-secondary education.

In addition, the prospective students need to have their application documents completed and be interviewed by the vocational school before being accepted. Sometimes training companies also need applicants to complete an aptitude test.

It is important to note that these vocational programs are not taught in English, only in the official languages of the respective canton.

In Switzerland, there are the following Vocational Education and Training (VET) Programs to choose from:

  • The two-year VET program leads to a fully accredited VET certificate. This offers young adults the chance to have a federally accredited qualification. Students who complete this program have the ability to continue their training within VET to obtain a higher level.
  • Students completing a three or four-year VET program can expect to receive a federally accredited VET Diploma. This program gives young adults the information needed to work in certain vocational occupations. It takes either three or four years depending on the specific canton. Upon completion, graduates also have the opportunity to continue studying in order to receive a higher vocational qualification.
  • The Federal Vocational Baccalaureate Program allows students to receive a Federal Vocational Baccalaureate (FVB) Certificate. Students can be complete the FVB program either during the three- or four-year VET program, or after the VET program. When students successfully complete the FVB program, they are able to directly enroll at a University of Applied Sciences (Fachhochschule) to continue their education.

We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete.