Are generalist universities still relevant today?


With the exception of ETH Zurich and EPFL, most Swiss universities offer the full spectrum of arts and sciences. Do they have a future?

(From "Horizons" no. 110 September 2016)​​​


Yes, says Astrid Epiney, the Rector of the University of Fribourg

The generalist university is neither obsolete, unnecessary nor inefficient. In fact, it fulfils a very specific role as the cantonal university in the Swiss tertiary education system. On the one hand it makes a contribution to educating future academics, but on the other hand it also helps to promote scholarly engagement with the great societal questions. Thus the universities allow students to acquire a broad spectrum of both general and specialised knowledge in all fields, with due regard to appropriate methods and scientific practice in each case, while still maintaining the unity of teaching and research.

Generalist universities promote the development of independent, critical thought, which in turn enables us to delve deeper into abstract issues and to further the emergence of new knowledge. They also make a contribution to professional and scientific activity. This all implies a degree of collaboration in teaching and research that stretches across the disciplines. Ultimately, it's about ensuring that both teachers and students cultivate more than just their own, more or less narrow branch of scholarship. Instead, they can appreciate the perspectives offered by other sciences, and engage with different approaches.

In this manner, the truly significant challenges that we face today – whether migration, digitisation or climate change – can be analysed with input from different fields of scholarship. And we hope that this will help us to find solutions to them. The task of the university in this regard is twofold: to nurture interdisciplinary relationships (at the very least, an awareness of that should be encouraged among the students); and to promote interdisciplinary collaboration in research. The generalist university creates the best conditions for training young, talented minds for business, science and society – producing people who are not just specialists but who have a multidisciplinary perspective when they approach their given tasks. This does not mean, however, that a university should not set particular emphases to complement the activities of other universities. And quite apart from this, there is no empirical evidence that 'specialised' universities produce fundamentally better 'results'.

The concept of the generalist university is more relevant than ever today. Our prime task should be to use to the full the opportunities offered by the generalist university, and thereby enable it to play its role in the service of society to the best of its ability.

Astrid Epiney is the Rector of the University of Fribourg and a professor of European and international law.


No, says Patrik Schellenbauer of Avenir Suisse

In the global context, Switzerland is a small, economically very successful country. It also owes this prosperity to the fact that it is an extraordinarily successful centre of knowledge and research, when we take its size into consideration. Some of our universities achieve exceptional results that have a worldwide impact. Switzerland's workplaces, its export industry, its financial centre and its service industries are all dependent on cross-fertilisation with its knowledge centres and the ideas they generate.

But there is no guarantee of future success. Global competition is increasing as the most sought-after minds become increasingly mobile. In many fields, cutting- edge research is becoming more demanding and more expensive, and the critical mass of resources needed is getting bigger. At the same time, the money being spent on education and research is in competition with other state expenditure. If Switzerland wants to maintain its position or expand it, then it has to bundle the resources of its knowledge base more than has been the case until now.

The contrast to the reality of Swiss university policy is stark. Here, it's not efficiency or excellence that is the prime concern, but all too often a mesh-work of regional political concerns. Instead of asking whether Switzerland really needs seven faculties of the human sciences or another business school, energies are being invested in getting the biggest possible slice of the public cake for education, and then distributing it among the players involved. Universities are seen as a kind of 'public service' that should maintain the broadest possible spectrum of educational offerings all over the country. The Federal Act for the Support and Coordination of Higher Education Institutions is an expression of this federalist, corporatist premise that affords the distribution of monies greater importance than efficiency.

Switzerland should rather see itself as a single, national tertiary education area that plays a part in the global concert of knowledge centres. We don't need some bureaucratic master plan that assigns different roles to different universities, but more freedom of design for individual institutions. To this end, they should be removed as far as possible from political influence. One possible way of depoliticising the debate would be to move from today's model of provider-financing to one of user-financing. This could be done via a state-financed education account from which students pay for their studies. This would create competition and force the universities to contemplate which courses they want to offer themselves, and which should be offered in collaboration with other institutions. The result would be more specialisation, and we would achieve the greater concentration of resources that is necessary today. Perhaps generalist universities would continue to exist, because the breadth of disciplines they offer naturally has a value of its own. But if not, it wouldn't be a misfortune for the students, because the Swiss university towns are all within commuting distance.

Patrik Schellenbauer is Deputy Director of Avenir Suisse and its Chief Economist.