The fragmented Swiss education system and foreign diploma issues can make it difficult for young Swiss expats to study in Switzerland. Planning ahead is the key to success.
Switzerland enjoys a good reputation in terms of higher education, which is why it is a favoured destination for students coming from abroad. According to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, there were 74,440 foreign students in the country in 2022 – including 7,526 Swiss expats. And the number has risen over the past ten years.
“Swiss diplomas are well recognised internationally and institutions do well in the rankings,” says Frédéric Bouillaud, a French-Swiss national who lives in the Var, in the southeast of France. As a father of two children aged 12 and 7, he is already thinking about his elder daughter studying in Switzerland.
He is also impressed by the openness of the system. “In the Swiss curriculum, taking time out to travel and discover the world is well regarded. In France, a gap year is seen as taking a chaotic approach to your career,” he adds. Bouillard also appreciates the flexibility of the Swiss system which allows people to move easily between paths, for example to study after an apprenticeship.
But being an expat Swiss offers no guarantees that you can study in Switzerland. There is in fact no special treatment for young Swiss Abroad, explains Martina Weiss, secretary general of swissuniversities, the sector’s umbrella body.
“It’s the degree that’s important rather than the nationality [of the student]. Students with high school diplomas can apply to study at any Swiss university. This means that young people of foreign and Swiss nationalities are treated in the same way,” Weiss says.
However, being Swiss generally means lower tuition fees as well as access to cantonal scholarships – a big advantage given the high cost of living in Switzerland.
Tuition fees (although low internationally) can vary quite widely for Swiss and foreign students, depending on the institution. At the University of BernExternal link the difference is CHF200 ($198) per semester (in addition to the CHF750 main fee), but at the University of Teacher Education in FribourgExternal link, this increase is sevenfold: it charges per semester CHF600 for Swiss but CHF4,200 for students with parents domiciled abroad.
There are also logistical challenges, particularly around housing. Bouillard is already thinking about his daughter studying in the Neuchâtel region, where he has family members.
Katharina Stalder, a French-Swiss living in Toulouse, in southern France, also encountered housing issues when her elder daughter, Léonore, left to study at the University of Geneva in 2020.
“There was no longer any room in the student halls of residence or in shared accommodation. And as my family lives near Bern, that wasn’t a solution either,” she recalls. After some research, Stalder discovered a housing cooperative in Geneva for students and interns which had room for her daughter.
The financial burden is also the reason why Stalder’s daughter still has health insurance in France. “We simply can’t afford Swiss health insurance,” Stalder says.
As a citizen of an EU/EFTA country, Léonore is allowed to keep her insurance (normally one is required to have Swiss insurance when moving to Switzerland) under the agreement on the free movement of persons for students undergoing education and training in Switzerland. But students do need a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).
For students from other “third” countries, like the United States, exemptions from Swiss compulsory health insurance are possible, provided students have private insurance cover equivalent to that of a Swiss health insurance. This is limited to three years, with a possibility of extending by another three yearsExternal link. Students from the post-Brexit United Kingdom come under the EU/EFTA rules.
Scholarships, which are granted by the 26 cantons (which are in charge of educational matters in Switzerland) can offer financial relief.
But Ruth von Gunten, from educationsuisse, which represents Swiss schools abroad and also advises young Swiss Abroad on education in Switzerland, warns that there are “as many procedures [for this] as there are Swiss cantons”.
A Swiss abroad can apply for financial support from their canton of origin, for an apprenticeship or higher education, so long as it’s their first form of education in Switzerland. However, cantons have begun tightening their belts for economic reasons, von Gunten says. Some no longer grant funding to those from the EU, while others only rarely help out the Swiss Abroad. A third, “mixed” way requires students to pursue grants in their countries of residence first before applying to universities in Switzerland.
The Swiss Conference of Cantonal Directors of Education has tried to harmomise cantonal legislation on scholarships. But cantons can still go further than this agreement, and four have not joined at all (Appenzell Inner Rhodes, Nidwalden, Schwyz and Solothurn).
Stalder, who applied a canton of Bern scholarship for her daughter, confirms that the application was “a real headache to put together”. Here educationsuisse can help to “act as a link between the home canton and student,” von Gunten says.
Differing admission criteria
One of the major obstacles for the Swiss Abroad and their parents is a lack of familiarity with the Swiss education system. In contrast to many countries, where education is managed on a national level, higher education institutions in Switzerland fall under the cantonal authorities, with the exception of the two federal technology institutes in Lausanne and Zurich (EPFL and ETH Zurich).
In practice, this means that each institution can impose its own admission requirements for foreign students – which are published by swissuniversities each year. Von Gunten advises people to contact institutions or universities directly in case of doubt.
Nevertheless, as a general rule, students coming from abroad are required to take six core subjectsExternal link during their last three years of high school, to have the equivalent of the Swiss baccalaureate (high school leaving certificate). These are 1. Fiirst language (native language), 2. Foreign language, 3. Maths, 4. Natural sciences, 5. Humanities and social sciences, 6. Additional subject from category 2,4, or 5 or IT or philosophy.
Choice of subjects
But 2020 reforms to the French baccalaureate, for example, have caught some young Swiss Abroad out as they find themselves without the full required core subjects. This was not a problem under the older, broader French baccalaureate.
Swiss Abroad from English-speaking countries, like Britain, the US and Australia, also need to be careful. “It is important to take a close look at the [Swiss university] admission requirementsExternal link before starting high school (the last three years of schooling),” von Gunten highlights.
England, Wales and Northern Ireland have A Levels, which are generally taken at age 18 in three subjects. To get into the top-ranked ETH ZurichExternal link, these would have to be in maths, physics or chemistry or biology and the language of instruction or foreign language – with minimum grade A in each A-Level.
Overall, planning ahead is key when wanting to study in Switzerland, experts and parents contacted for this story said.