ETH Zurich crowned best uni in continental Europe – again

ETH Zurich has reached its highest ever position in the QS World University Rankings, confirming its status as continental Europe’s best university.

ETH Zurich crowned best uni in continental Europe – again
ETH Zurich rose to 8th place this year. Photo: Ed Seymour

The Swiss federal technology institute placed 8th in the 2016/17 rankings, released on Tuesday, one place higher than last year, making it the only university inside the top ten that isn’t in the US or UK.

Now in their 13th year, the annual rankings are compiled by global higher education analysts Quacquerelli Symonds (QS), and rank 916 institutions according to four key pillars: research, teaching employability and internationalization.

For the first time in more than a decade US universities took all three top spots, with MIT placing first for the fifth successive year ahead of Stanford and Harvard, knocking Britain's Cambridge to fourth.

In eighth place, ETH Zurich’s rise this year is “a result of an improvement in its standing among employers, and an improvement in its relative research performance,” said  QS in a statement.

According to QS, Swiss researchers are producing approximately 70 citations per researcher a year, more than double the global average of 28 citations per researcher.

Switzerland’s other federal technology institute, EPFL in Lausanne, retained 14th place, making it the second best university in continental Europe.

Both placed far ahead of the next-ranked university in continental Europe, the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, which took 33rd place.

Elsewhere in Switzerland, the University of Zurich rose five places to 80th and the University of St Gallen broke into the top 300 at 288, having been outside the top 400 just two years ago.

Ben Sowter, Head of Research at QS’s Intelligence Unit, attributed Switzerland’s success in part to its world-leading performance in the internationalization pillar.

Seven of Switzerland’s eight universities scored full marks for 'international faculty ratio', while the university that does not, the University of Lausanne, nevertheless scored an impressive 99.4 out of 100.

“This year’s rankings indicate that targeted long-term investment in higher education, whether from private endowments or the public purse, is paying dividends,” said Sowter.

“Switzerland’s universities are benefiting from above-average investment in education and an extremely high quality of living. Both of these factors continue to make Swiss institutions highly attractive destinations to the world’s best researchers, and they are reaping the rewards.”

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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”.