Switzerland’s enviable education system is one of the best in the world, as children and young people benefit from a strong headstart in life and great universities

The provision of outstanding educational services from kindergarten to university is considered an absolute birthright in Switzerland, with citizens and authorities willing to invest significant time and financial resources in learning. The hugely successful Swiss dual education model is based on apprenticeship, meaning students can follow a learning path with an apprenticeship, rather than solely an academic route. This unique approach ensures teenagers are equipped with the knowledge and skillset to succeed in academic or technical spheres in many different sectors and fields. Universities enjoy mutually beneficial relationships with businesses and captains of industry to boost research in various fields, facilitate the exchange of information and spark new research angles. They also encourage technology transfers, so that they shorten the time between the research and its application and transformation into start-up and commercial use. Switzerland has nine universities ranked in the coveted QS World University Ranking — a performance that is even more remarkable considering the country’s population is just 8.4 million. Just as impressively, Switzerland boasts ten universities in the overall Times Higher Education World University Rankings. The highest-ranking university in Switzerland is ETH Zurich, which sits just outside the global top ten.

Exceptional education is national pride

Half of the eight top-ranked Swiss universities make the world’s top 100 for their percentage of international students and the country ranks high internationally for the percentage of international academic staff members. Underlining the progress made by Swiss universities and research institutes, technologies co-engineered though L’École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) enabled paraplegics to walk again just recently. EPFL plays a very particular role in the academic world in Switzerland. It is the only school that combines positive aspects of the European model and of American public universities, with a track tenure system and general PhD schools. “We operate a pragmatic approach, standing on two legs: having basic science on the one hand, while moving rapidly into new fields,” says EPFL president Professor Martin Vetterli. “We have the advantage of being a well-funded public university — a Swiss tradition — which, together with the entrepreneurship, agility and speed of a US university, gives us an edge.” The largest and oldest university in Switzerland, the University of Geneva was established nearly half a century ago. Undergraduate and postgraduate programs are offered across a broad range of subjects. To achieve its aim of bringing people together, the university works with major organizations based in the city, like the International Committee of the Red Cross. “Our access to a very knowledgeable pool of experts on international issues, NGO representatives and academics, enables us to innovate in such areas,” states rector Yves Flückiger.

IMD: Transforming organizations by developing their leaders

A leading business school for executives and a powerful catalyst for change

IMD’s vibrant and busy campus in Lausanne
IMD’s vibrant and busy campus in Lausanne

Named by The Financial Times as the world’s best business school for open programs seven years running, thanks to its outstanding executive education, IMD is in a class of its own. As the global expert in developing leaders of today for tomorrow, and transforming organiza- tions to create ongoing impact, IMD educates over 9,000 executives annually from 100 nations. In addition to its campus in Lausanne, Switzerland, it is supported by a modern learning center in Singapore. IMD’s range of innovative courses, services, and tailor-made programs include leadership training, an MBA, Executive MBA (EMBA) and executive coaching. Working together with top organizations and senior executives, IMD brings insights, tools and mindsets that help organizations deal with real issues and challenges to enhance learning and create a beneficial business impact. By empowering companies’ senior management and employees to address challenges themselves by developing and testing new ideas, IMD helps facilitate the execution of the most promising recommendations throughout the broader organization.

Jean-François Manzoni, President, IMD

IMD operates several world-class specialized centers, of which the best known is the IMD World Competitiveness Center — a pioneer in the field of the competitiveness of nations and ranking their performance. “Our core mission is to develop leaders and to transform organizations, in a way that is intended to have a positive impact on society,” says IMD president, Jean-François Manzoni. “We are resolutely international in our outlook and reach. Our role is to help leaders remain as effective and as efficient as they can, as standards are rising every day. “We help them to question their own practices and their beliefs, because ‘what got them here’ will likely not be sufficient to guarantee future success. “Prices in Switzerland are high, which forces companies to be even more productive. An employee in Switzerland has to be as effective and efficient as two to three employees elsewhere for the same cost. That creates a constant pressure and represents a challenge, and an opportunity.”

Lino Guzzella, Former President, ETH Zurich

ETH Zurich: The benchmark for education and innovation

Lino Guzzella, former president of ETH Zurich, explains why it is one of the world’s most innovative universities

ETH Zurich focuses on society’s needs and the fields of data, medicine, sustainability, manufacturing technologies and critical thinking. Can you provide some background to the university?

ETH Zurich was created in 1855 by the young Swiss federal state in a phase of strong industrial development. Our main and most direct contribution to society is the education we provide our students. We graduate around 2,500 students each year who are educated to the highest level available worldwide. ETH Zurich also consults and works with different industries. Over the past 20 years, we have launched approximately 400 spinoff companies and the value of their initial public offerings, mergers and acquisitions is more than $2 billion Swiss francs (CHF).

ETH Zurich is 7th in the 2019 QS World University Rankings, has over 20,000 students, including 4,000 doctoral students, from over 120 countries, and has produced 21 Nobel Prize winners. Why is it so successful?

Funding is one key factor. Our budget is roughly CHF1.9 billion, around 70% of which comes from the government. Openness is the second factor: we look for talent all over the world and are also open to ideas, innovation and change. The third factor is autonomy: individual faculty members determine how to spend their own funding. In addition, you cannot be a top university without being globally connected. We provide our faculty members with the means and the access to our truly international network of 9,000 research contacts worldwide. In the US, we have connections with over 1,400 universities, 170 research institutes, 20 non-governmental companies, 52 public authorities and 133 industries. In addition, we established the Singapore-ETH Center for Sustainability in 2010 in close collaboration with Singapore’s National Research Foundation.

How does ETH Zurich work with the private sector?

We have a variety of ways to cooperate and work with businesses of all sizes. Partnership councils represent one successful form of cooperation (for energy, security and mobility among other things) to which we invite interested companies. We regularly present our latest research to them and discuss developments to foster a privileged relationship. Companies can leave a council and form a joint venture with ETH Zurich to pursue a project separately. We have a Tech Transfer and Industry Relations office that deals with intellectual property issues, supports the creation of spinoff companies and helps researchers cooperate with industry. Generally, we rely more on bilateral relations with companies — if you really are the frontrunner, the biggest companies will come to you. The fact that Google’s biggest research and development (R&D) center outside the US is in Zurich and that Microsoft, IBM Research Zurich, Disney Research, Apple and other ICT companies have R&D activities here is no coincidence. Such strategic activities have a lot to do with ETH Zurich’s reputation and talent pool.

Jean-François Manzoni, President, IMD

How do you attract international students and talent?

Excellent professors attract talented students and researchers who, in turn, increase the attraction of the university for future professors. It is a self-reinforcing process. We also participate in road shows: ETH Zurich exhibits at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, for instance, and in September 2019, ETH Zurich will host the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit. We offer faculty and researchers the best conditions to develop their talents. We believe in them and give them trust, time and resources to pursue their ideas — maybe they are crazy, but they may also change the world as Albert Einstein did. We want more Einstein-level research.

Can you tell us about the ETH+ initiative you launched in 2017?

ETH+ is very exciting. Universities have to have clearly defined disciplinary foundations to be productive. However, compartmentalization makes it very difficult to communicate across departments and disciplines. Exchanges among fields encourage innovation and real breakthroughs. So, essentially, ETH+ is oriented to bringing diverse academic disciplines and talents together. A year ago, our community proposed hundreds of ideas to stimulate cross-disciplinary discussion and we funded nine. The ideas ranged from security and privacy in the digital society to a platform for robotics to help developing countries and medical applications. It has been a big success and we have plans for second and third rounds.

In 2018, you announced that you would not be seeking a second term as ETH Zurich president. What will be your legacy?

My biggest contribution is having contributed to hiring some of the brightest people in the world. To give you an example, I hired Alessio Figalli, who recently won the Fields Medal for Mathematics — equivalent in prestige to a Nobel Prize. Many of these people are young but in 10 years they will shape the scientific or technological landscape of the world. We have also redefined the university’s strategy by emphasizing two new fields: data science and medical science. ETH Zurich needed to be more involved in medicine and has created a medical school program. We have introduced the “mathematization of medicine”, which will be one of the big ideas of the future. It is already globally recognized as one of the most interesting experiments in medical research and we have had excellent success so far. The biggest individual idea that we have brought to the forefront is our Critical Thinking Initiative. We need to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers at the highest possible levels in science, engineering and technology. But they also need to be critical and creative thinkers and we have created many ideas to foster the transdisciplinary components that are important for educating the leaders of the future.

Talent and the Swiss economy

Joël Mesot, newly appointed president of ETH Zurich — the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland — describes how talent drives a thriving economy

Joël Mesot, Current President, ETH Zurich

Switzerland consistently ranks as the top country in the world for attracting and retaining talent. With few natural resources, it invests heavily in developing its home-grown talent and enticing some of the world’s leading academics. This formidable talent pool — diverse in both culture and discipline — is well equipped to face the world’s most significant challenges head on and their talents contribute substantially to a thriving Swiss economy. On 1 January, physicist Joël Mesot assumed leadership of one of the world’s top universities. As the newly appointed president of ETH Zurich, Mesot — a highly experienced academic and multilingual leader — will bear the profound responsibility of hiring some of the most talented scientists, engineers and architects in the world. Their combined research inspires the university’s broad portfolio of fundamental and applied research, 1,500 industry partnerships and an average of 25 spinoff companies each year. Mesot and the Swiss Federal Council that appointed him understand the value and impact of knowledge transfer on society and economic growth. As technology continues to drive innovation and evolve the future of work, developing and attracting new talent presents important challenges, such as improving diversity and inclusion. Enabling talented people to adapt to new technologies and an ambiguous future requires agility both as educators and as learners. ETH Zurich plays a critical role in Switzerland by ensuring its curricula reflect the skills and competencies that meet the needs of society both now and in the future.

Such competencies do not thrive on sheer talent alone but through the encouragement and development of critical thinking in a failure-tolerant culture. A highly respected talent himself, Mesot brings a strong background in technology, science and research to his new role. For his earlier research, he was awarded the IBM Prize by the Swiss Physical Society and the Latsis Prize by ETH Zurich. He grew up in Geneva, completing a degree in Physics and graduating from ETH Zurich. Following stays in the US and France, he joined the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI). In 2008, the Swiss Federal Council appointed him as director of the PSI, and he has also held ordinary professorships at ETH Zurich and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. On his appointment, Mesot said: “I will be working alongside the executive board to focus our energies in ensuring that ETH Zurich and the ETH Domain are able to sustain the impressive level of development they have enjoyed in recent years. The Swiss approach for developing talent, transferring knowledge and contributing to the economy serves as a model to which other countries can aspire.”