Switzerland Country Profile: Education system

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System Structure

Responsibility for education in Switzerland lies primarily with each of the 26 cantons (regions), however the structure and quality of Swiss education is roughly the same in all regions. The two overarching rules are that pupils must complete nine years of compulsory education and that it is provided free of charge. Most Swiss children complete two years of kindergarten before beginning primary school around age 6. After primary and junior school, around 20% of children continue on to standard secondary school (Gymnasium) ending in the ‘matura’ qualification which grants access to university. The rest of Swiss school children either go to a technical or theoretical school. Schools are divided according to the language spoken in each area, French, German, Italian or Romansh. 

Academic Year

The school year begins between mid-August and mid-September in the whole of Switzerland. School children have around twelve weeks of holiday per school year and the dates are set by each canton. The typical school day begins at 9am and ends at around 4pm. Children typically return home for lunch, which many working parents may find inconvenient. However, parents have the option to pay for lunchtime supervision at school.

The university academic year is divided into the winter semester, (October to February) and the summer semester (March to June/July). 

Higher Education 

Switzerland is internationally-recognised as a centre of excellence in higher education, with two of its universities, ETH Zurich and Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, ranked in the top 15 of the QS World University Rankings (2015). There are 12 general universities across The Confederation along with institutions dedicated to applied sciences, teacher training and research. Low tuition fees and multiple- national languages, along with a global reputation for academic brilliance, means Swiss universities attract huge numbers of international applications, with 25% of students being non-Swiss.


Swiss universities are generously supported by the government, which invests heavily in higher education institutions and academic research. Students pay a relatively low annual tuition fee of around CHF1,266 - CHF 2,200 (£847 - £1,472) and the same level of fees apply to all international students, including those from non-EU countries. Understandably, the combination

of world-leading universities and comparably low fees makes the country highly attractive to international students and competition for places is fierce. The Swiss Government offers a range of scholarships to help foreign students - candidates should contact individual Swiss universities for more information.


Since 2001, Swiss universities have been rapidly adjusting their curricula to comply with the Bologna Declaration. This means that most Swiss degrees are now based on a two tier bachelor-master’s system. A bachelor’s degree currently takes around three to four years to complete and a master’s one to two years. Bachelor’s degrees are open to foreign students who are in possession of a secondary leaving certificate or diploma, although the decision of admission rests with the individual institution. Courses are generally taught in French, German or Italian, depending on where the university is in Switzerland. There are a number of courses taught in English, however this is more common at postgraduate level.


The global success and high standing of Swiss universities is partly thanks to the country’s heavy investment in research, particularly in science and technology. The Swiss Federal Government spends 2.2% of its GDP on research and development, almost double the EU average. Swiss research activities have been boosted in recent years by the presence of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, which has promoted collaboration between Swiss universities and leading scientific institutions worldwide.

Primary and Secondary education 

Primary school (Primarschule, école primaire, scuola primaria) is compulsory for all Swiss children from age 6. In some cantons two years of kindergarten (pre-school) education is also compulsory prior to commencing primary school. Depending on the canton, primary school takes five years to complete before students continue to lower secondary school (juniors). On completion of lower secondary school at age 15/16, students can choose to leave school or enter upper secondary school (gymnasium), where they gain a Matura (diploma) necessary for university admission.

There are six types of upper secondary school: 

* Maths and Science (Matematisches und Naturwissenschaftliches Gymnasium): for students with aptitude in mathematics or scientific subjects.

* Secondary school of Economics (Wirtschaftsgymnasium): for students wishing to study business or economics at university.

* Modern languages (Neusprachliches Gymnasium): for students who wish to study foreign languages.

* Classical languages (Altsprachliches Gymnasium): for literature and classics students.

* Music and Arts secondary school (Musisches Gymnasium) - for those interested in studying arts and music.

* Vocational School (Berufslehre) - for students wishing to enter a technical, manual or vocational profession.


Although pre-school education is not compulsory in all cantons, nearly all Swiss children attend kindergarten (école enfantine/jardin d'enfant/ Scuola dell'infanzia) at age 4, before starting primary school at age 6. In some cantons, such as in Zurich or Geneva, kindergarten hours are usually in the morning then pre-school children return home for lunch. Pre-school children follow a play-centred programme involving arts, crafts and music, with more formal training in basic maths, writing and reading in the final kindergarten year (at age 5). Pre-schools are entirely funded by the state (or each canton) and parents pay nominal contributions towards trips and activities. However, there is a large number of private pre-schools, usually where English is the main language, and parents pay for their children to attend.

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