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Why does Switzerland subsidise fees only for some international students?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Why does Switzerland subsidise fees only for some international students?
The EPFL is one of two Swiss universities that don't charge more fees of foreign students. Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

While international students must pay higher tuition fees than their Swiss counterparts in most of the country’s public universities, this is not the case in two polytechnic institutes.

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At the two federal institutes, the ETH in Zurich and EPFL in Lausanne, nearly half of the student body comes from abroad — the highest proportion of all Swiss universities.

In fact, both institutions said they can no longer accommodate more international students on their premises, and EPFL is now seeking to limit the number of foreigners it admits each year.

READ ALSO: Why a top Swiss university wants to limit number of foreign students 

Why do so many foreign students come to study at these two universities?

Both have a global reputation for top-notch education and research in fields such as engineering, sciences, marhematics, and technology in general, with ETH scoring consistently high in international rankings

But there is also another factor: cost.

Both schools are much cheaper than highly-ranked universities elsewhere in the world.

Studying at top universities in the United States or the UK, for instance, costs tens of thousands (dollars or pounds) each year. 

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What is the situation in Switzerland?

Public universities in Switzerland are funded mostly by taxpayers, so it is logical that Swiss students (whose parents pay taxes) would have a preferential treatment in this regard over those coming from abroad.

For this reason, foreign students pay higher tuition in universities across Switzerland (though only a fraction of what it would cost to study in the US or the UK).

For instance, foreign students at the University of Italian Switzerland in Ticino currently pay 3,100 francs per semester, while the Swiss pay 1,100 francs.

At the University of St. Gallen, tuition is 2,900 for an international student, versus 1,000 for a Swiss.

These are the highest public university tuitions in Switzerland; in others, the fees are below 1,000 francs, though there too, foreigners pay more than the Swiss.

You can see the latest prices for all Swiss universities here

There are, however, exceptions to this rule: the ETH and EPFL charge the same fee for all students — 730 francs per semester — regardless of their nationality.

As both these institutions are financed mostly by the federal government, it means that, unlike other Swiss universities, public funds are used to pay for foreign students.

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Why is this?

Both universities consider this as an investment in Switzerland’s future, since a significant number of ETH and EPFL graduates from abroad are expected to “remain after graduation and contribute to the country's prosperity.”

In fact, in March, the ETH Board rejected the proposal of higher tuition for foreign students.

“Given the shortage of qualified labour, this decision also takes into account the interests of the Swiss economy,” the Board said

But while a number of foreign graduates do remain in the country, many must leave.

That is mostly the case of those from outside the EU or EFTA (Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein), who are subject to quotas, the number of which is restricted, and set on annual basis depending on the needs of Switzerland's economy.

In 2023, MPs voted to allow these foreign students to stay on in Switzerland and work after they graduate, provided they obtain their degrees in fields that are needed — but are in short supply — in the labour market.  

But the project had hit a roadblock in September, when MPs realised no legal basis exists to allow foreigners subject to quotas to live in Switzerland indefinitely, on the same basis as their EU /EFTA counterparts.

Therefore, exemption clauses for third country nationals who graduate from Swiss universities with in-demand skills must be created before progress can be made on this issue.

So far, this is still stalled in the parliament.

READ ALSO: Will non-EU graduates ever get green-light to stay in Switzerland? 

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Comments (1)

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DAVID DOWD 2024/05/06 13:43
Possible typo... For this reason, foreign students pay higher tuition in universities across Switzerland (though only a fraction of what it would cost to study in the UK or the UK). ?US or the UK? or "UK or the US"
  • ben.mcpartland 2024/05/06 13:58
    Thank you. corrected.

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