The cantonal education system and the equivalence of diplomas can make it difficult for young Swiss abroad to access higher education. Anticipation seems to be the key to success, but that doesn’t prevent some disappointments.
This content was published on October 27, 2022 – 09:55
Switzerland enjoys a solid reputation for higher education. For this reason, many people from abroad want to come and study here. According to the Federal Statistical Office (BFSexternal link) the country had 74,440 foreign students, Swiss universities and colleges combined in 2022. Among them were 7526 Swiss abroad. In the last ten years, their number has increased slightly.
“Swiss diplomas are internationally recognized and the schools are well ranked,” said Frédéric Bouillaud, a Franco-Swiss living in the Var (département in south-eastern France). The father of two children aged 12 and 7 is already planning his eldest daughter’s university education in Switzerland.
In addition to the performance-related elements, he sees further advantages of the Swiss system, in particular the openness: “The Swiss curriculum places great value on taking time to travel and discover the world. In France, a sabbatical is perceived as a sign of a chaotic journey.” He also appreciates the flexibility that makes it easier to switch from one industry to another.
However, being a Swiss abroad does not guarantee that you can study in Switzerland. In fact, young Swiss abroad are not given any preferential treatment, as Martina Weiss, Secretary General of swissuniversities, the Rectors’ Conference of Swiss universities, technical colleges and teacher training colleges, emphasizes: “The important thing is the diploma and not the nationality.” Students with a foreign high school diploma can apply for a place at any Swiss university. Young people with foreign or Swiss nationality are therefore treated equally, explains Martina Weiss.
On the other hand, Swiss citizenship usually allows lower tuition fees and access to cantonal study grants. An important advantage as the cost of living in Switzerland is high.
Depending on the institution, tuition fees can vary greatly between Swiss nationals and foreign nationals. For example, if the University of Bern increases the fees between Swiss and foreign students by just 200 francs per semester, they drop the University of Education in Friborg from 600 to 4,200 Swiss francs.
A logistical challenge
Studying in Switzerland when you come from abroad is a challenge in several ways, starting with logistics. Aware of the difficulties that might await him, Frédéric Bouillaud would prefer a school in the Neuchâtel region, where he has family who could take in his daughter. “Financially, we know it will take effort.”
When her eldest daughter Léonore went to study at the University of Geneva in 2020, French-Swiss Katharina Stalder, who lives in Toulouse, also had problems with the apartment. “There was no more space in the student dormitories or in the shared flats. And since my family lives near Bern, we didn’t have a solution on this side either,” the mother recalls. After some research, she discovered the existence of a housing cooperative for trainees and was able to find a place for her daughter.
A financial burden
The financial weight is also the reason why Katharina Stalder’s daughter is still insured in France. “We simply cannot afford Swiss health insurance.” As a citizen of an EU/EFTA country, the young woman is subject to the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons, who is staying in Switzerland as part of an apprenticeship.
She is therefore not subject to compulsory insurance in Switzerland unless she is gainfully employed (exceptions for people from France, Germany, Italy and Austria and depending on the canton of residence). However, you must obtain a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).
Young people from third countries can ask to be exempted from compulsory insurance “provided they are privately insured and their coverage is equivalent to that of a Swiss health insurance company,” says the Federal Office of Public Health (OFSP). They can be exempted for a period of three years, with the possibility of an extension for a further three years. After this period, taking out insurance in Switzerland is mandatory.
An administrative headache
To lighten your wallet, you can apply for a cantonal grant. But Ruth von Gunten, who works for educationsuisse, the umbrella organization for schools for the Swiss Abroad and advice center for young Swiss Abroad, warns: “There are as many procedures as there are Swiss cantons”.
A young Swiss abroad can apply for financial support from their home canton, provided that this is their first training in Switzerland (apprenticeship or study) and this is sanctioned by a federally recognized diploma.
However, the cantons have become stricter in recent years for economic reasons, says Ruth von Gunten. Some no longer award scholarships to young people from the European Union, others only rarely to Swiss abroad. A final category has opted for a mixed form: students must first obtain a decision (positive or negative) for a scholarship in their country of residence before they can apply in their home canton.
In recent years, the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EKD) has advocated harmonization of cantonal legislation in the area of tuition fees. However, the cantons are free to apply stricter rules than those laid down in the concordat. To date, all cantons have joined the concordat, with the exception of Appenzell Innerrhoden, Nidwalden, Schwyz and Solothurn.
Katharina Stalder, who applied for her daughter in the canton of Bern, confirms that “the scholarship files are a real headache”. She believes that “the information requested is almost intrusive, while sometimes it is just one-off assistance, the amounts of which are ultimately quite ridiculous”.
educationsuisse can support the Swiss abroad on request and “act as the link between the home canton and the students,” says Ruth von Gunten.
Different admission requirements
One of the greatest difficulties faced by young Swiss abroad and their parents is the lack of knowledge of the Swiss education system. Unlike many countries where education is administered nationally, tertiary education in Switzerland is dependent on cantonal authorities, with the exception of the two Swiss Federal Polytechnics in Lausanne and Zurich (EPFL and ETHZ).
In concrete terms, this means that each institution (college or university) independently determines the admission requirements for foreign students. «swissuniversities publishes the admission requirements for the various universities every year. If in doubt, we recommend contacting the schools or universities directly,” explains Ruth von Gunten.
The high school diploma is important
Despite the non-uniform admission criteria, all universities have a core of six subjects in order to be able to safely accept foreign students with a secondary school leaving certificate that is equivalent to the Swiss Matura.
According to swissuniversities, the following subjects must be taken in the last three years of secondary school, regardless of whether you want to study science or literature:
- first language (mother tongue)
- second language
- Natural sciences (biology, chemistry or physics)
- Humanities and social sciences (geography, history or economics/law)
- Computer science, philosophy or a choice between subjects 2, 4 or 5. Computer science and philosophy can only be chosen as the 6th subject.
The special case of France
Until 2020, the French baccalaureate was considered equivalent to the Swiss baccalaureate and allowed access to higher education in Switzerland. However, France implemented a reform in the 2020/2021 school year that changed the admission requirements for holders of a general higher education entrance qualification.
The victim of this reform was the son of Claude Genier, who wanted to study at the Geneva School of Economics (HEG). Two years before graduating from high school, he had to choose 3 subjects in the Première class, which were reduced to two in the terminale, the baccalaureate year. He chose Physics, Mathematics and Economics and Social Sciences (SES) to keep only the last two in Terminale.
At an information day at the HEG, however, he found out that he should have studied mathematics and physics in the two years before graduating from high school. Unable to justify it, he “reluctantly” turned to another education in France, according to his father.
Claude Genier’s son played with bad timing. However, the Franco-Swiss is of the opinion that “French high schools, especially the Swiss abroad living in France, should be informed more comprehensively”.
For its part, swissuniversities ensures “regular contact with the embassies”.
A single catchphrase: anticipate
In order not to get into such a situation, you need to look forward to it – provided that the future student knows which course he would like to pursue. Éric Hirsbrunner, a Franco-Swiss living near the Geneva border, was so lucky.
From the second grade (three years before high school) her daughter Alicia knew that she wanted to integrate a health or social field in a high school in Geneva. This allowed her to choose her options for the Abitur in the hope that these would be valid for enrollment in the intended field. “Since we are close to the border, several students were concerned and the high school counselor (a kind of principal who is in charge of the students) provided us with information. But we still had to find out a lot ourselves,” says Éric Hirsbrunner.
Despite this anticipation, the family went through a period of hesitation: “After the reform of the Abitur, it was the great unknown. Several schools in Switzerland openly said that they didn’t know if they could accept young people from France.” This situation has created a lot of uncertainty.
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