As we embark upon the most digital decade to date, new education trends are sure to emerge. One of these is the ‘super-university’ – super because of high brand value, great rankings and, according to Dr David P. Baker of Penn State University, their ability to “produce unprecedented levels of science, technology, and knowledge about human society.”

Growing innovation and international appeal

The USA has taken the lead with high-performance super-universities, injecting generous private funding and adding tech transfer, patenting offices and publications to the mix. European nations such as Germany and Switzerland have followed suit.

Many universities today are internationalizing, creating campuses abroad. Lausanne’s prestigious school of hospitality, Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL), has a campus in Singapore, while Boston University has been sending students to Geneva for a semester for many years. The European Union has created the European Universities Initiative. Their mission is to accelerate the transformation of universities so “young people are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow in a fast-changing society, and future generations are empowered to find solutions to big societal challenges that Europe and the world are facing.”

Swiss structures

The fundamental difference between the USA and Switzerland is that the latter’s leading public universities are publicly funded and controlled.

The Confederation:

  • Supervises and funds the federal institutes of technology
  • Is responsible for promotion of research
  • Legislates on higher vocational education and training and the universities of applied sciences
  • Funds vocational education and training, the universities of applied sciences and cantonal universities

The cantons in Switzerland:

  • Are responsible for the universities and are their main source of financial support
  • Run the universities of applied sciences and many colleges of higher vocational education and training
  • Supervise the universities of applied sciences

So are Switzerland’s universities super universities – and if not, could they be in the future?

Swiss universities today…

Considering the size of the country, Swiss universities fare extremely well in a national comparison. This is thanks in part to the high overall level of wealth. The UK’s Times Higher Education World Rankings places 1 of Switzerland’s 12 universities in 13th place – just behind Oxbridge and a host of Ivy League school. All of the Swiss candidates feature in the top 600. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH) does better on the female:male ratio than the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, while the Università della Svizzera Italiana is nearly at parity. According to Thomson Reuters innovation rankings, which include patent filing as one criterion, Switzerland is highly regarded. Four Swiss universities have made it into the top 25, namely the EPFL, the University of Zurich, the ETH and the University of Basel. Extending the list to the top 100 sees the University of Geneva added to the list of Swiss names. The excellent performance reflects Switzerland’s culture of innovation. As a nation, the Swiss submit the most patent applications per capita.

…and tomorrow

If Switzerland wants to compete in the global market, it needs to develop the right talents and work continuously to remain attractive. Super-universities play a vital role in this. They will help the country fill its pipeline with more women, greater research and impressive innovation – across fields. While STEM is a priority, the ivory towers of this country must preserve their capacity to think deeply, inspire greatly and create vocations. This means continuing funding at all levels of education, prioritising learning and development, and testing new teaching and learning methods. The good news is that we already on this journey to the future.