Switzerland is committed to pursuing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all and promote lifelong learning. As educational and economic needs change, how does the Swiss government support lifelong learning?
In 2016, the Confederation, cantons and communes spent a total of CHF 37.2 billion on education, equivalent to 17.5% of total public expenditure and 5.6% of Switzerland’s gross domestic product (GDP). In European terms, Swiss spending on education ranks among the top 15, with Iceland leading the way at over 7% of GDP.
At federal level, the education spend for 2016 came to CHF 6.4 billion overall, of which more than half was spent directly and CHF 2.8 billion distributed via the cantons. Switzerland’s cantons account for the largest portion of public expenditure on vocational and professional education and training. In 2017, public expenditure for Switzerland’s vocational and professional educational and training (VPET) system stood at around CHF 3.6 billion. In accordance with the Federal Act on Vocational and Professional Education (VPETA), the Confederation funds a quarter of total public VPET expenditure. Alongside public funding, professional organisations and companies also contribute heavily to the financing of vocational and professional education and training, including the dual system.
In 2018, a Federal Council strategy document warned of the impact of globalisation and digitalisation on jobs. Actors in the field of training, research and innovation were urged to take their roles as digital agents seriously, strengthen their position and raise awareness of digitalisation in society and the economy. Although the government acknowledges the need to keep pace with change, more could be done.
The Swiss Federation for Adult Learning (SVEB/FSEA) has constituted a parliamentary working group to raise the agenda of lifelong learning and increase the profile of the issue at the political level. Meanwhile, the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) has initiated a programme targeted at the least qualified workers in Switzerland, who cannot and must not be left behind as the economy and labour markets move forward on the wave of digitalization. As the OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria has put on public record, “We need an effective system for lifelong learning, offering opportunities to the low-skilled, who are the most at risk from automation.”
Employment status in Switzerland is closely related to education level and income class, with an employment rate of 64.0% in the low-income population and 92.0% in the high-income brackets. Clearly, lifelong learning is a worthwhile investment. But funding is a central issue, especially among the lower-income groups that – arguably – need it most.