ETH Zurich remains top uni in Europe: QS list

Switzerland’s two federal institutes of technology, ETH Zurich and EPFL, rate among the world’s top 20 universities in the latest QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) rankings for 2014, published on Tuesday.

ETH Zurich remains top uni in Europe: QS list
Building at ETH Zurich. Photo: Roland Fischer/Wikimedia Commons

ETH Zurich remained 12th in the list, unchanged from last year, and ranked as the top university in continental Europe, according to the authoritative QS rankings.

Its sister institute, EPFL (Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne), jumped to 17th place from 19th in 2013.

The two Swiss schools are renowned for engineering and scientific studies.

The list of the top universities, judged by a survey of academic output, is dominated by American and British universities, headed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in first place followed by Cambridge University and Imperial College London (tied for second place) Harvard and Oxford University and University College London jointly ranked fifth.

“Consistently ranked the top university in continental Europe, ETH Zurich . . . is a leading player in research and education in Switzerland and worldwide,” QS said in a summary.

The university’s 16 departments offer Bachelor, Master and Doctoral programmes in engineering and natural sciences, said the summary, which noted that while bachelor programmes are offered in German, “English is the common language at the graduate level”.

QS underlined ETH Zurich’s international outlook, with 70 percent of professors recruited from abroad.

QS also highlighted the diverse backgrounds of staff and students at EPFL, from around 120 nationalities.

It said the Lausanne institute “has evolved into a top-ranked research and teaching institution that attracts some of the best intellects of the world”.

Other Swiss universities among the world's top 100 included the University of Zurich (57th) and the University of Geneva (85th).

The QS World University Rankings annually rate 800 universities, according to such factors as reputation and research citations.

For the complete list of top universities, check here.

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EXPLAINED: How will the post-lockdown tracing system work in Switzerland?

Given there is no Covid-19 vaccine at the present time, contact tracing is believed to be an effective, though complex, strategy for breaking transmission chains and controlling the spread of disease. How will it work in Switzerland?

EXPLAINED: How will the post-lockdown tracing system work in Switzerland?
Research at EPFL will help establish a tracing system. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

How does the tracking work?

The process involves identifying contaminated people, so that measures can be taken to prevent the spread of infection on to others.

It is all the more important in cases when the sick person has no symptoms and may not even know they are sick.

Once the infected person is identified, efforts are made to locate and test the people they have been in contact with within the past two weeks. If one of those contacts is found to be infected, the investigation starts again.

Trying to find chains of contamination could be a long process.

What are some of the challenges of contact tracing?

In Switzerland, as in many other countries, the challenge is to establish an effective tracking system, while respecting data protection.

Since mobile phones would be used, various technical and legal questions could arise, particularly on the collection and use of data.

In Switzerland, to process this information in the context of the pandemic, either the consent of the individual or an anonymisation of the data is required.

READ MORE: Swiss scientists launch a new app to collect Covid-19 data 

What tools will Switzerland be using for post-confinement contact tracing?

One possibility would be the tracking by GPS of mobile phones, as already implemented in a partnership between the federal government and Swisscom. This method allowed the authorities to monitor the public to see if they complied with the restrictions related to going out and traveling during the Easter holidays. 

But the government is now supporting a brand new project at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and its sister institution, Zurich’s Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETHZ).

Both are working on the so-called D3-PT project, a free downloadable application for mobile phones, which will run on Google’s Android operating system and on Apple’s iOS.

Its goal, according to Edouard Bugnion, professor of computer science at EPFL, is to “break the chain of virus transmission” by identifying new cases and isolating them. If a person is found positive for coronavirus, all the people he has encountered in the previous days will be alerted, so that they can go into quarantine and be tested. 

No exact details or launch date have been released yet, but the Federal Council thinks the D3-PT tracing would work well in Switzerland.

Will this system guarantee privacy?

Until very recently, the two institutions participated in the European research project Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing, bringing together 130 organisations from eight countries.

But EPFL and ETHZ distanced themselves from this project after realising that user data would not be protected, and went on launch the D3-PT system which, they said, would be more “decentralised and transparent”.