Zurich’s ETH uni overtakes Cambridge in new global rankings

Zurich’s ETH technical institute has further consolidated its place as one of the world's best universities by leapfrogging the UK’s Cambridge University to take sixth place in the latest QS Quacquarelli Symonds global rankings for 2020.

Zurich's ETH uni overtakes Cambridge in new global rankings
Photo: ETH Zurich

The ranking is the highest yet achieved by ETH Zurich in the ranking for the study of 48 different subjects at the world’s universities.

In coming sixth, ETH is also the top-ranking university on continental Europe. In Europe as a whole, only the UK’s Oxford University scored higher – in fourth place overall.

Read also: 'Switzerland has third best university system in the world'

Meanwhile, the very top of the table was dominated by US universities, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) coming top, followed by Stanford University and Harvard University. In fifth was California Institute of Technology.

In terms of other Swiss universities, Lausanne’s EPFL technical institute also had a good result, moving up from 22nd place last year to 18th, while Zurich University was also in the QS global top 100 – in 76th place.

Europe's strongest research ecosystem

In a statement on Switzerland’s performance, QS analyst Ben Sowter said: “The Swiss higher education has consolidated its position as Europe’s strongest research ecosystem.”

He noted that Switzerland’s success was based on its international perspective and on its recognition of the need to invest in both human capital and research and development.

At the same time, the country’s very high standard of living made it an attractive destination for talent, he added.

Meanwhile, ETH President Joël Mesot on Wednesday reacted positively to the news of the institute’s QS ranking.

'A great result for Switzerland'

“We are very pleased about this great ranking. It provides yet more proof that ETH Zurich is on the right track in teaching, research and technology transfer,” Mesot said in a statement.

The ETH president also noted results of these rankings needed to be taken with caution.

Read also: 'A short-term L permit is almost useless for non-EU graduates of Swiss unis'

“Nevertheless, we can be very proud. Particularly of the fact that the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology – ETH Zurich and EPFL – have placed very highly in all the rankings for years.”

Mesot also warned Switzerland against resting on his laurels.

He said the country needed to “work actively to ensure that the good financial and political framework for the ETH Domain and for Switzerland as a science hub remain in place in the coming years”.

ETH beats Cambridge on citations per faculty

The QS rankings measure six performance indicators: academic reputation (weighted at 40 percent of the total result); employer reputation (10 percent), faculty/student ratio (20 percent), citations per faculty (20 percent) and international faculty ratio/international student ratio (5 percent each).

While ETH Zurich and the University of Cambridge had similar scores for most of these metrics, ETH did substantially better than the UK university in terms of citation per faculty, scoring 98.4 out of 100 against 74.2 for Cambridge.

The citation per faculty indicator is determined by looking at the total number of citations received by all papers produced by an institution across a five-year period by the number of faculty members at that institution.

Papers in different fields are weighted differently to prevent life science papers skewing results. In 2015, the life sciences accounted for nearly half of all academic papers published, according to QS.

In the rival Times Higher Education World University Rankings, ETH Zurich is currently ranked as the 11th best university in the world.

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Typical Swiss chalets ‘not actually Swiss’

The traditional Swiss style of chalet so beloved by tourists visiting the alpine country is actually the creation of foreign architects, a researcher at federal technology institute ETH Zurich has found.

Typical Swiss chalets ‘not actually Swiss’
'Swiss style' by a German architect. Image: courtesy of Daniel Stockhammer

Daniel Stockhammer discovered the revelation as part of his doctoral thesis, the results of which are published in Horizons magazine this month.

His research focused on 19th century German architect Ernst Gladbach, a professor at the then newly-founded ETH Zurich, who created a comprehensive collection of sketches and plans of Swiss wooden houses .

In studying the drawings – which lay unpublished in the archives of the Swiss National Museum for a century – Stockhammer came across other, much older sketches of Swiss houses by architects from England, France and Germany.

He then realized it was these foreign architects who created the archetypal ‘Swiss’ style of chalet.

Speaking to The Local, Stockhammer said although wooden buildings have long been a part of Swiss rural architecture, they were “regionally so different that one could at most speak of local and regional traditions, not national ones”.

“The enormous diversity made it impossible to reduce these styles into a national Swiss style of wooden buildings”.

So foreign architects invented one.

In the late 18th and early 19th century wealthy foreign architects such as Briton Peter Frederick Robinson began travelling through Switzerland to draw and document the wooden buildings, said Stockhammer.

Back in London, they redrew these sketches, altering them in the process based on their own idealistic view of Switzerland.

“In this process, the architects did not stick closely to a faithful representation,” says Stockhammer.

Some parts were exaggerated, some were copied from different buildings and others “completely made up” to create “an idealistic picture of the Swiss house”.

This invented ‘Swiss national style’ represented a rural ideal for the European elites of the 18th and 19th century who then created buildings in this image in major European cities, according to Stockhammer.

The Rütlihaus before and after its transformation by Ernst Gladbach. Photo: courtesy of Daniel Stockhammer

This architectural style was then transported back to Switzerland with the advent of mass tourism in the country.

“The tourists brought their idealized images (back) to Switzerland . The Swiss responded to the needs of guests [by building] hotels and railway stations but also kiosks and souvenirs in the Swiss style.

“Since, at the beginning, they did not know exactly how to build in the 'Swiss style', the architects and chalet-builders looked back at the original works of almost exclusively foreign architects for inspiration.”

Stockhammer was particularly surprised to find that even the Rütlihaus – the 'original' Swiss house on the Rütli meadow, considered the birthplace of Switzerand – was the invention of German Gladbach, who studied the original building before it was demolished and then created a new, ‘more real’ version.

“To a great extent, Switzerland owes its national style, and its success, to tourists,” concludes Stockhammer.