The university – an institution for the upper and middle classes


the Association of Swiss Student Bodies (VSS) which hands over the Scholarship Initiative © Keystone/Marcel Bieri

How can we best achieve equality of opportunity in education so that more than just the well-off can afford a degree? The issue is a sensitive one, but it’s hardly ever been researched properly. By Roland Fischer

Something is rotten in the state of Switzerland – at least when it comes to financial support for stu­dents from financially weaker fam­ilies. In a nutshell: the current scholarship system is a real federal mess. There are 26 different sets of regulations, which means an application for help can sometimes be a geographical lottery. “Today’s rules are un­fair because a student from Nidwalden has a far worse chance of getting a scholarship, and gets far less support, than a student from the canton of Vaud. This is the case, even if they both attend the same universi­ty of applied arts in Bern and their families are equally poor”, wrote the Association of Swiss Student Bodies (VSS) recently. They were reacting to a decision by the Council of States, which had refused for the umpteenth time to take any steps towards harmonising the scholarship regulations (see box). For example, in the canton of Grisons, one in every 74 citizens gets a scholarship, but in the canton of Glarus it’s just one in every 285. And the value of the scholarships also varies greatly. In the can­ton of Neuchâtel, students in tertiary edu­cation get an average of 4,000 Swiss francs per year. But in the canton of Vaud next door, students get three times as much. Essentially, it’s only very few cantons that have enough money to realise the ideal of equality of opportunity, regardless of a student’s background or family situation.

This dire situation with scholarships is the result of a development that was actu­ally positive in itself. In the 1960s, student numbers began to grow – and this trend has continued to the present day. Until then, studying at a university was quite natural­ly something only for the well-off. In total, some 14,000 students were enrolled at the eight cantonal universities and the ETH in 1960, which meant a university attendance of roughly 3%. Scholarships were simply not a topic of discussion. But then came the expansion of education, and with it the Scholarship Law of 1965, the aim of which was “to allow children also from less-well-off families to choose a career suited to their abilities and aptitudes”, as Federal Councillor Tschudi wrote at the time. In the early years of the Swiss scholarship system, that noble goal was achieved.

Falling scholarship quotas

Between 1960 and the mid-1970s, student numbers tripled in Switzerland and have continued to grow to this day. However, the amount allocated for scholarships has hardly grown since the 1980s, which means that the number of students receiving them has decreased. Whereas in 1980, 16% of those in tertiary education were given a scholarship, in 2013 it was just over 7%. The federal government is hardly involved any more at all. Of the CHF 300 million spent on scholarships, only 25 million come from the federal government. So we’re clearly back in a situation where anyone want­ing a higher education has to be able to afford it. “Universities remain an institu­tion for the upper and middle classes” says Charles Stirnimann, who runs the Office for Financial Contributions to Education in Basel and is President of the Inter-Canton­al Scholarship Organisation (IKSK).

From a societal perspective, the situa­tion at the universities of applied sciences is more interesting. These have a much greater potential for getting students from more deprived circumstances into higher education, and they display far greater social mobility, says Stirnimann. Accord­ingly, the universities of applied sciences ought to have a far higher quota of schol­arship holders than the universities – but in fact their figures are roughly the same, as is confirmed by the statistics recently released by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. For Stirnimann, who is a historian and an expert in the Swiss scholarship sys­tem, this is a good example of how scholar­ships “are not just a social benefit, but also a socio-educational service” – or at least, they should be. If channelled properly, it is possible “to make optimum use of the existing potential in society” and have an impact on societal change. This is an ar­gument that is gaining currency again because Swiss employers are complaining about a shortage of skilled workers.

Loans in Scandinavia

What would the ideal scholarship system look like? Wouldn’t all applicants have to be supported if possible? If this were to be the case, then between 20 – 25% of all Swiss students would get a scholarship – though the actual figures would differ greatly from one canton to the next, because travel and living costs vary with the distance stu­dents live from their university. Or should more specific criteria be applied to funding allocations? Educational research doesn’t really have an answer here, as there is poor understanding of the effective impact of scholarships and other such support mech­anisms. In 2002, the German researchers Stefanie Schwarz and Meike Rehburg sub­jected Europe’s very different scholarship systems to an initial descriptive compari­son. In Scandinavia, for example, 70 – 80% of people born in any single year go into tertiary education, and many of them are supported by loans. However, this study did not focus on determining which system is best at making university attendance pos­sible to those who want it.

In Switzerland, the educational re­searcher Nils Heuberger has been the most active in this field, and this year the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Edu­cation (EDK) appointed him to a new post with the task of investigating it further. His research has shown that the earning capacity of a family still has a clear influ­ence on whether or not its children go into the higher streams of secondary education. This then has a knock-on effect on their fur­ther educational development. Heuberger stresses that the question of scholarships
is ultimately a cultural issue in education. He has carried out a study for the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration (IDHEAP). It showed that there were big differences between the German-speaking and French-speaking regions of Switzer­land. Any “ideal” scholarship system would thus have to be determined independently of the broader educational and socio-polit­ical context.

For Lea Oberholzer, who is responsible for dealing with scholarship issues at the Association of Swiss Student Bodies, it is clear that the scholarship system should ideally be run on a federal level. And what does Oberholzer think about the increasing political pressure to give loans rather than scholarships? “Experience has shown that the prospect of years of debt means some people would rather abandon all ideas of studying than take out a loan”. And this would result once more in a disadvanta­geous situation for those who in any case belong to the underprivileged. In this re­gard, Heuberger points to surveys carried out by the Federal Statistical Office that prove that not all loans offered are in fact accepted. And so the situation remains a political stalemate between the federal authorities and the cantons – with a lot of unanswered questions. Action needs to be taken on all levels; in fact, it would be an ideal topic for a large-scale research pro­ject.

Roland Fischer is a freelance science journalist.

(From "Horizons" no. 103, December 2014)

Communication division