Educational Challenges in Switzerland

A- Background of the Swiss Educational System

This article will discuss the strengths, weaknesses, and challenges facing the Swiss educational system. It will proceed as follows: a background will be given on the structure and institutional design of the system, then it will be analyzed by reviewing OHCHR recommendations and OECD indicators specific to Switzerland.” Providing a roadmap to the paper is important to overall comprehension and readability.

Switzerland is a federal and multilingual country with a decentralised education system. The 26 Cantons (states) are responsible for educational development within their respective territories. While the Cantons are responsible for compulsory education, the Federal Government also supports the Cantons to encourage post-compulsory education (general education schools, vocational and professional education and training, universities). The principle of decentralisation denotes the fact that the Cantons and their municipalities finance 90% of public expenditure on education.

The Confederation and the Cantons have a joint obligation to ensure a high degree of quality and accessibility within the education system. To meet this obligation, Switzerland has embraced a complex monitoring system that identifies key challenges and evaluates the progress and achievement of policy goals. The Swiss Education Report, which is published every four years, is one result of this monitoring process.

In compulsory education, 95% of all pupils attend public schools in their local municipality. There is no free choice of school in compulsory education; admission is dependent on families’ residential address. All public schools in compulsory education are free of charge. In many areas, public schools are an important tool to promote social integration among schoolchildren within a certain area. Indeed, children who have different social, linguistic and cultural backgrounds all attend the same school.

Each Canton manages its own curriculum, including certain institutional and structural design elements, such as the weekly teaching periods per subject and per class. There is no national curriculum. However, the Federal Constitution obliges the Cantons to coordinate and harmonise their educational systems with regard to structure and objectives. The Cantons have, for instance, developed language-region curricula for compulsory education, which are currently being introduced. The language of instruction is German, French, Italian or Romansh, depending on the language region. Traditionally, language learning is important in Switzerland. Students learn a second official language of Switzerland as well as English during their compulsory school years.

Switzerland has a strong vocational and professional education system (VET). It offers mostly dual-track VET programmes at the upper secondary level—which combine an apprenticeship with one to two days of classroom instruction at a vocational school—and broad tertiary-level professional education programmes.

The majority of young people enroll in VET after completing their compulsory education. This provides them with a solid foundation and practical experience in most occupations (there are about 230 professions to choose from). Around one-third of compulsory education graduates opt for continuing their education at an upper secondary specialised or baccalaureate school, which prepare them for tertiary education at a university.


B- OHCHR Human Rights Mechanisms/ Switzerland


The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) noted that several measures had been taken in Switzerland to enhance the right to education. Nevertheless, it found that asylum seekers and undocumented children are still experiencing problems gaining access to secondary education. UNESCO recommended that Switzerland is encouraged to strengthen public policies to ensure that children of foreign origin enjoy the best possible quality of education and that undocumented and asylum-seeking children are given access to education, particularly at the secondary level. The Committee on the Rights of the Child made similar recommendations. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recommended that Switzerland encourage further diversification of the educational choices available to all genders and revise educational materials at the cantonal and community levels to ensure a gender-sensitive perspective in teaching materials. It also advised Switzerland to design new strategies to address discriminatory stereotypes and structural barriers that might deter girls from progressing beyond secondary education and enrolling in traditionally male-dominated fields of study.

C- Education at a Glance 2021: OECD Indicators

Equal Opportunities for students across socio-economic backgrounds

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an index that measures educational attainment and achievement of students from varying economic, social and cultural status (ESCS). As of 2018, the percentage of children from the bottom quartile of the ESCS that achieved at least PISA level 2 in reading was 32% lower than that of children from the top ESCS quartile. This is a larger educational gap than the OECD average, which sits at 29%.

Significant differences in educational achievement may lead to worsening income inequality. In Switzerland, 30% of adults 25-64 years of age with below upper secondary educational attainment earned at or below half the median earnings in 2019. This is a larger percent than the OECD average of 27%.


Gender Inequalities in education

In nearly all OECD countries and at all levels of educational attainment, 25-64 year-old women earn less than their male peers; their earnings correspond to 76%-78% of men’s earnings on average across OECD countries. This proportion varies more across educational attainment levels within countries than between OECD countries. Compared to other education levels, women with below upper secondary education in Switzerland have the lowest earnings relative to men with a similar education level—these women earn only 77% of the income earned by men who also lack an upper secondary education. Women with an upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education earn 84% of the earnings of men with the same or similar education levels.

Education and migration background

On average across OECD countries, among adults without upper secondary attainment, 57% of native-born adults are employed, compared to 61% of foreign-born adults. Following this trend, in Switzerland, the employment rate of foreign-born adults without upper secondary attainment was 71% in 2020, higher than that of their native-born peers (65%).

Among tertiary-educated adults, 92% of native-born adults and 84% of foreign-born adults are employed. Foreign-born adults who arrived in the country at an early age have spent some years in their host country’s education system and gained nationally recognised credentials. As a result, their labour-market outcomes are generally better than that of those who arrived at a later age with a foreign qualification. In Switzerland, among foreign-born adults with tertiary attainment, 90% of those who arrived by the age of 15 are employed, compared to 83% of those who arrived in the country at age 16 or later.


In sum, that the government of Switzerland should strengthen its public policies to ensure that children of foreign origin enjoyed the best possible level of teaching and that child asylum seekers and undocumented children were given access to education, particularly at the secondary level; as well as programmes and awareness-raising activities against violence, abuse and bullying in schools. Moreover, it must encourage further diversification of the educational choices of girls and boys, take steps to revise educational materials at the cantonal level and ensure that gender-sensitive teaching materials are available across all cantons and communities.


Written by Faical Al Azib