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The Secret of the World’s Most Competitive Nation


The Secret of the World’s Most Competitive Nation


Though Switzerland has consistently held the top spot in the Global Competitiveness Rankings by the World Economic Forum, the landlocked nation has slipped to rank 47 for enrollment in higher education. The country boasts the most internationalized universities, yet it says internationalization is not the goal.



The Secret of the World’s Most Competitive Nation

By Jin Chen
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 635 )

Asking Swiss people why their country is so international seems to be as strange as asking English-speaking Americans why they speak English.

Switzerland lies smack in the heart of Europe, sharing borders with France, Germany, Austria, Italy and the tiny principality of Liechtenstein. Against this backdrop, internationalization is only natural. Leaving the country is no big deal; the Swiss often inadvertently step across borders without even knowing it.

Multilingual Learning

However, aside from its geographical location, the country has also made many exceptional policy choices in this regard.

Some 64 percent of Swiss people use more than one language every week, and 26 percent use more than three, according to figures by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. The chaos of several languages being spoken in an area might cause controversy and conflict in other places, but in Switzerland, people learn in a diverse environment from childhood on. Elementary school students from regions where different languages are spoken visit each other for exchanges.

Why should children learn a second language if they don’t even speak their mother tongue well? Such misgiving about bilingualism or multilingualism are also harbored by Swiss parents. Earlier this year, the cantons of Zurich and Luzern conducted a referendum on whether elementary school students should learn only one foreign language. The referendum failed, which means children in Zurich and Luzern, both German-speaking cantons, will continue to learn English in the middle grades and French in the higher grades of their six-year primary school education.

Not Swiss? No Problem!

The fact that English is not the mother tongue in any part of Switzerland does not hinder the country’s ability to connect with the world. The two most international universities around the globe are in Switzerland. They are: ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich; and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2016-2017.

The ranking is drawn largely from the “international outlook” pillar, which covers international staff, students and co-authors. However, it also includes a measure of universities’ international reputations, taken from THE’s annual Academic Reputation Survey.

ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich

ETH Zurich, which has spawned 21 Nobel Prize laureates, is the top-ranked European university. It has 18,000 students from 120 countries. With fewer than 10,000 students, EPFL is smaller, but more than half of its student body is from abroad.

As the only federal universities in Switzerland, ETH and EPFL are funded by the federal government. Given that they hire foreign professors and enroll international students, are the Swiss people concerned that such openness to foreign staff and students could affect the job and study opportunities of local people?

“We use the best people, not just those who grew up here,” explains Andreas Mortensen, vice president for research at EPFL.

“International students come here to study, and after graduation they settle here. This benefits the Swiss society and economy,” says Pierre Vandergheynst, vice president for education. “They might, of course, also return home, but thanks to their familiarity with Switzerland, there is still an opportunity for collaboration with Swiss companies later on. In the long run, this is good for Swiss industry.”

Yet, in this globally top competitive nation, less than half of all young people attend university. What do you do if you don’t get a university education?

University Not a Must

Two thirds of Swiss high school students do not pursue university studies but choose instead a vocational education and professional training under the country’s apprenticeship system. Apprenticeships combine practical skills and theoretical knowledge. Swiss teenagers start to think about what they want to do in the future around the ages of 15 or 16, and many apply for apprenticeships at Swiss companies.

Sasi Kraemer, who is not yet 20, has just completed her apprenticeship at a Swiss bank. During her three-year program, Kraemer rotated through various departments, changing posts every six months, thus training and gaining experience in accounting, customer consultation, investment banking, personal finance and corporate finance.

Swiss teenagers are not childish and immature but independent-thinking learners who are able to make decisions. Apprenticeships enable young people to directly face the realities of the workplace and learn skills that are in high demand. For companies, apprenticeship programs are an effective way of training the talent they need.

This is also true for the finance industry. “UBS supports the Swiss education system by providing a large number of apprenticeships and a wide range of training opportunities,” remarks Markus Tanner, managing director at UBS Switzerland and a member of the Swiss Finance Institute Continuing Education and Knowledge Advisory Board. Sergio Ermotti, Group CEO of UBS, also started his career in international financing with an apprenticeship.

Not everyone needs to go to college; it is possible to shine and find one’s passion through other career tracks.

At ETH Zurich, students can leave the traditional classroom setting in their last year to participate in a focus project, doing research alongside a professor and working with a team to produce a product. Kamil Ritz, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, created an unmanned aerial vehicle with his group that can move vertically along walls. He notes that there are textbook examples, “but you only come across the really complicated issues when you do it in practice,” he says.

To encourage students to exploit the commercial value of scientific research and make it available to industry more quickly, graduates may apply for start-up incubation. For instance, the university’s business incubator program, the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Lab (ie Lab), provides applicants with 150,000 Swiss francs to learn the ins and out of running a company over a period of 18 months. Every year, more than 20 spin-offs are founded by ETH graduates.

Interestingly, some 70 percent of these coached founders are foreigners.

While Switzerland is about the size of Taiwan, it has only one third of Taiwan’s population, which results in talent shortages.“Our workforce is not big enough; we need good young talent,” observes Tomas Brenner, head of ie Lab. “Only if we attract the best people can we become the best,” he believes.

“Being international in itself is not the goal” notes ETH Zurich President Lino Guzzella. “Universities become international to be excellent in science, excellent in teaching and excellent in knowledge transfer,” he points out.

ETH Zurich President Lino Guzzella

Switzerland, which is famous for letting its citizens directly vote on controversial policies in referendums, prefers to take the high road rather than the easy one. The Swiss people do not make these choices for the sake of globalization or internationalization, but because they believe by doing so, they will make Swiss society better.                                      

Translated from the Chinese article by Susanne Ganz

Additional Reading

♦ ‘Farewell, Taiwan’
♦ How Can We Prepare Our Kids For the Jobs Of the Future?
♦ The Global Competitiveness Report 2017-2018 (World Economic Forum)