Studying: Swiss Style

Exam results have just been released and students all over Lausanne are sighing with relief or commiseration at the denouement of the month-long period of épreuves. I personally am pleased to report that I passed everything; no mean feat in Switzerland, where the pass mark is 4/6 (roughly 66%), a jump up from the English minimum of 40%, meaning you need at least a 2:1 across the board.

With all the inter-cultural exchange, food tourism and absurdities that I report and comment on, the subject of university itself (kinda the reason I’m here) has been a bit neglected. So here’s a beginner’s guide to uni in Switzerland.

Lausanne has two universities: Unil (University of Lausanne, where I am) and EPFL (which, if you care or understand, stands for École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne). EPFL is a prestigious technical school, for engineers and computer scientists, mathematicians, etc. Or, as most people (including EPFL students) like to describe it, full of geeks, and mostly male ones. Unil is where one can study the arts, medicine, business, etc. It has a more equal male-female ratio, and a herd of sheep on campus. The two institutions are next door to one another and share residences, a sports centre, a tandem program and social events.

Though EPFL is much smaller than Unil and I have technically nothing to do with it, I find myself constantly surrounded by students from there rather than my host uni. The statistics are skew-whiff on this, I can’t explain it; maybe the fact that I’m just a big closeted geek myself contributes to my mysterious affinity with EPFL-ers. Though nothing could tempt me to go and study in the terrifying Rolex building on their campus (yes, they have a Rolex learning centre; could you get any more Swiss?). The floor slopes crazily, the building is transparent, massive and completely open plan. I can’t think of a more stressful studying environment; I take my books from their library and run.

Swiss universities (at least in Suisse Romande – the French part) are all equal. Très démocratique. They are all regarded on the same level. No Ivy League, no Oxbridge élite. As long as you succeed in your exams, you are pretty much guaranteed a place at university; there is no such thing as a shortage of places. Isn’t that amazing? This is possibly partly because, as we all know, university is not for everyone, but the Swiss seem to actually put this philosophy into practise. Let’s face it, a lamentably large percentage of UK university students probably don’t need to/should not be there; you don’t need to be failing a degree in order to binge-drink after all. So the Swiss who do choose to progress to university generally take their studies seriously.

Once you get to uni, it’s a little disorientating for an English student who is used to having a timetable made up for him, control over which is minimal on the student’s part, and if he is lucky will include modules he picked and managed to get a place on. Here, it is unheard of not to get a place on a module you want to study, though it means you may end up sitting on the floor if you chose a particularly popular one. You get a grace period of about three weeks in which you are free to test out modules, commitment-free, before registering for them, and you can tailor-make your own timetable. Somewhat confusing at first, but ultimately gratifying.

All classes are optional. Imagine! It really is learning en autonomie. But the Swiss, as the stereotype goes, are rather serious, so of course they attend their classes. It’s just us lazy, undisciplined foreign students, who can’t hack 8:30am starts, that let the side down…


One thought on “Studying: Swiss Style

  1. As for the Oxbridge thing, actually there is some reputation difference between universities, mostly between ETH and EPFL and all other institutions that offer technical studies, i.e. bachelors and masters in engineering and stuff like that, such as the Haute Ecole Spécialisée de la Suisse Occidentale of which many foreigners haven’t heard of; and then there are the specialized extremely elitist institutions such as the IMD. By the way, I was curious so I looked for the number of students in each university as I find myself usually sorrounded by people from EPFL too, in there they have 7800 students whilst in UNIL there are 12200 😛

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