Since Switzerland has no natural resources, education and knowledge have become very important resources. Therefore Switzerland claims to have one of the world’s best education systems. Since the educational system is largely decentralised and the cantons are responsible for educational services (kindergarten, schools, universities), education may vary significantly between cantons. For example, some cantons start to teach the first foreign language at fourth grade, while others start at seventh grade. Although private schools exist, the majority of children attend public schools. Public schools include Kindergarten, Volksschule (“elementary school”), Gymnasium (“secondary school”) and Universitäten (“universities”). Most municipalities provide kindergarten, primary and secondary schools.
Switzerland offers two basic kinds of tertiary education institutions. On the one hand, there are the ten cantonal universities and the two Federal Institutes of Technology. These are the so-called university institutes, some of whose histories go back to the 15th century. The oldest university in Switzerland is Basel, founded in 1460. On the other hand, there are the seven Universities of Applied Sciences which have emerged since 1997 from a concentration of around 60 upper technical schools consisting of technical schools and higher commercial comprehensive schools. They completed the first stage of their development in 2003. Together, these two types of institution form a dense network of educational establishments, offering Swiss and foreign students a range of high quality opportunities for tertiary education.
Universities are currently considering reforms in line with the Bologna Declaration, which has been signed by 45 countries including Switzerland in 1999. The idea behind Bologna is to harmonise the length and qualifications of education across Europe so that students and staff can move freely between universities, and the degrees they hold are recognised in every country. The reforms are also aimed at creating a “European space for higher education” by 2010 with the introduction of a bachelor-masters system, to ensure international compatibility. A bachelor’s degree will take three years, and a master’s degree a further two. The new model – which is based on the university system in place in the US and the UK – was introduced in 2001 in St Gallen. However, a number of students in Switzerland are opposed to such a system, as they believe the reforms mainly serve the interests of the economy and consider it a commercialisation of education.