Neutrality Leads to Variety for Students in Switzerland

ZURICH, May 3, 2013 — I can only imagine that it takes a lot of work to be neutral. Preferences and passions usually lead both people and countries to align themselves with like-minded folks -- or, perhaps more commonly, against those who seem alien. And yet, Switzerland persists, keeping its polyglot society safe and prosperous behind its mountain walls.

Swiss Education

One way that Switzerland keeps on ticking is, of course, via education. Swiss universities are tremendous, and they help create the talent that fuels its financial, medical, hospitality, and high-tech sectors. (Where you go to learn to play the alphorn and make watches, I’m less sure.) And those universities are virtually free of charge. As a result, whereas the best students in some countries enthusiastically strive to attend college in the United States and elsewhere, most Swiss stay put.

Switzerland’s sizable population of international students face a different, but interesting, choice. These students attend high schools such as the International School of Geneva, which is next door to the United Nations and is known as the very first international school in the world. Or they’re at one of the country’s many idyllic boarding schools. For them, attending college is not so much a political decision, or even a cultural one, so they often cast very wide nets, all over Europe, the United Kingdom, and of course the U.S.

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Creating a New Standard in Education

While some European countries, such as Germany, impose strict entry requirements (such as particular courses that non-German high schools are unlikely to offer), universities in places like the Netherlands are becoming ever more welcoming of international students, to the extent of offering classes and granting degrees in English. Meanwhile, even American students going to Swiss high schools feel the pull of British universities, in part because they offer relatively low tuition.

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For many students, though, even such a vast roster of European universities has a downside: almost all of them require students to declare their majors not as sophomores and not upon entry but indeed upon application. This approach bears little resemblance to the American liberal arts tradition in which 18-year-olds—the vast majority of whom are, understandably, still discovering their talents and interests—get to experiment, explore, and broaden their knowledge before they commit to a specialty.

At its best, this approach results in doctors, lawyers, and financiers who are often as well versed in literature, art, sciences, and social sciences as they are in medicine, law, and finance. It’s hard to imagine that these fields don’t complement each other, if only in subliminal ways. (Watching the marching band at halftime might even be more fun than going to an alphorn concert. Then again, going to Milan for the weekend can’t be half bad either.) Unfortunately, this experience presents itself only to those Swiss students who can afford it, and, even then, only if their profiles are strong enough to get them into the colleges of their choice.

In a perfect world, every student would find exactly the right school for him or her, irrespective of grades, test scores, finances, and geopolitics. Until that world arrives, Switzerland remains one place where almost anything seems possible.

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