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University Challenged - How Switzerland Figured Education Out

 University Challenged - How Switzerland Figured Education Out
 Pierre Dillenbourg
Professor at the School of Computer & Communication Sciences

In the midst of a sanitary crisis that has put new strains on learning, Institut Montaigne published a new report on Higher Education and Research in France with the aim of instilling new ideas and creating new debates. In this article series we look abroad in order to grasp the differences and values of Higher Education systems around the world. In this episode we turn our attention to Switzerland. Pierre Dillenbourg, Professor at the School of Computer & Communication Sciences, shares his insight on the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, which has gone through fundamental changes in the last decade. 

What is the secret recipe that enabled the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) to jump upwards in rankings over the last decade? Ask 2 people, you will get 4 answers, some related to the swiss HER system, other ones to the choices of EPFL specifically. What follows is my subjective selection of hypotheses, starting with the HER system.

So close but so different, Switzerland is a peculiar neighbor of France. Let’s skip the obvious contrasts such as its banks, its direct democracy or its timely trains; our cultural differences are deeper. For instance, the Swiss constitution requires an annual rotation of the position of the President among the 7 federal ministers, something difficult to imagine in Paris. In Switzerland, most political meetings switch between 2 or 3 languages, while scientific meetings most often unfold in English. Language diversity does not harm national identity, it’s part of it. The country does not have a Minister of Education. It has 26 of them, one per canton, since compulsory education (up to 16 years old) is the sole responsibility of cantons. Education systems differ across cantons with respect to the structure of schooling (number of years or cycles), the dates of semesters or the teaching training process. At the federal level, the Minister of Economy is in charge of education, which would be shocking to many on the other side of Jura. After compulsory school, two thirds of teenagers enter the dual vocational system. The current president of Switzerland and CEO of UBS are proud to say that they started off their careers with an apprenticeship. Only 22% of students obtain the "maturité gymnasiale" (a high school degree), which allows them to enter university. Any student with a maturité has access to EPFL, there are no pre-university programs like the prepa in France, and no entrance exams, but the system is overall quite selective. 

The system is tough but fair: promotion depends on one’s performance, not on the departure of older professors.

Another systemic difference can be found in the funding of research. Switzerland only has one agency that funds scientific research, the National Science Foundation (SNSF), which is quite similar to the French National Research Agency (ANR). We don’t have parallel funding structures such as France’s various research institutes (CNRS, INRIA, CEA or INSERM).

The SNSF offers multiple funding instruments, all of them on a competitive basis and only for time-limited projects. It supports a much smaller number of universities (11) than the ANR, but with almost the same budget, which makes the selection less competitive. I believe an admission rate of around 30% is healthy, while an admission rate below 5%, as some EU instruments imply, means that 95% of applicants wasted their time. A side effect is the scarcity of permanent research positions outside or inside universities. Another corollary is that no time is wasted writing and reviewing reports: while some of my French colleagues tell me of how they have to write multiple reports, as they belong to multiple structures, I merely write a brief annual report for my SNSF grants. The dean of my school can easily find my publications, citations, grants, start-ups and how students appreciate my courses (but I am not sure he does, there is enough emulation among us).

The above applies to all Swiss universities, but does not explain why EPFL suddenly emerged as it did in rankings. When Patrick Aebisher started his presidency in 2000, he progressively collected what he called the ‘low hanging fruits’ from the US Ivy League universities. The first of these fruits has been a tenure track for assistant professors, which concerns about half of all recruitments. Very young professors are thus selected, between 30 to 35 years old, finishing or having recently completed their PhD. The system is tough but fair: promotion depends on one’s performance, not on the departure of older professors. EFPL was one of the first universities in Europe to do so, with many others then following suit. The craft, however, is in the way this is implemented. Firstly, EFPL gives junior professors full independence in their research: they are not juniors in a lab driven by seniors, they have their own lab and get a start-up financial package. The university invests a significant amount of time in the recruiting process, aligned with the US recruiting season, ensuring that offers are made to a candidate only if there is conviction that they could then be given tenure. Interestingly, the recruiting committee includes tenure track professors: since it’s about choosing colleagues for many years, more senior professors should not decide alone. As EFPL competes in the top-10 league in computer sciences, applicants who receive an offer from there also receive an offer from top US universities: Switzerland selects them as much as they select it. Their stay on campus is thus designed with this reciprocity in mind. Similar efforts are of course made for senior hires. For them, the committee pays little attention to the bibliometrics used in other places, but focuses instead on the substance, i.e. what candidates previously have discovered, proven or invented.

The second fruit has been to create a doctoral school similar to many US universities. EFPL has 2,200 students enrolled at the doctoral level (versus 9,000 undergraduates). Candidates apply to one of the 21 doctoral programs and are pre-selected by a committee before being hired by a professor.

EFPL gives junior professors full independence in their research.

Once on campus, they have to take doctoral courses where they meet students from other labs: they also have to pass a candidacy exam after one year. Thereby, EPFL broke away from the European doctoral tradition where students somehow remain within the walls of their hosting lab. Enormous efforts are also engaged in selecting PhD students: in computer sciences, we receive 700 applications per year, we accept 95 and then do our best to convince them to come. 

A third feature that differentiates EPFL from French universities is the univocal commitment for innovation and tech transfer. EPFL labs are expected to generate several start-ups. Multiple instruments are in place to support them. In 2020, 20 start-ups were created and, between 2012 and 1018, Swiss start-ups raised 1.6 billion Swiss francs. As narratives are better than statistics at conveying culture, let me share the story of Jean-Marc Tasseto. When he visited EPFL in 2013, he had recently left his position as CEO of Google France in order to create CoorpAcademy, a B2C company producing MOOCs for corporate training. He asked whether it would be possible to rent office space in our innovation park. At 6pm, he signed the rental contract! 

EPFL broke away from the European doctoral tradition where students somehow remain within the walls of their hosting lab.

A fourth distinctive feature is our flat organization. For instance, the School of Computer & Communication Sciences is simply a set of 48 labs steered by one dean. Nothing else. A typical CS lab is composed of one professor, a part-time admin assistant, maybe one permanent staff member and then 10 to 20 PhD students and postdocs who rotate every 4-5 years. When a professor leaves, the chair is closed and the school opens a new position, independently from the closed one. 

A controversial point has been the embellishment of the campus with multiple buildings, including the campus lighthouse, the Rolex Learning Center. Today, I would argue that it has been a clever choice. It is of course hard to prove in pandemic times, but the quality of the campus became a significant part of the EPFL education or professional experience. Every spring, I sit down for lunch with some French students visiting EPFL before choosing their university. They often mention the quality of the campus, the contact with students and teachers from all over the world and of course the reputation of EPLF. This attractivity led to a massive influx of French students, getting close to 50% freshmen, which quickly became politically risky. EFPL now therefore requires to obtain at least 16 as a graduating grade in high school in order to enter EPFL. Instead of doing a pre-university program, at EPFL, students have immediate contact with their chosen professional track (mechanics, chemistry…). 

Since EPFL already had solid experience with online education, it managed to adapt to the pandemic overnight. One year later however, students are nonetheless expressing their suffering, as they miss campus life. There is however consensus that some elements of online teaching should be kept even after the pandemic - for instance, 20% of teachers reported in a survey they had fully converted to online classes. A commission is currently preparing this hybrid future.

From all what precedes, the reader may expect that EPFL leaders have been criticized for being too influenced by their US experience. It is true that the majority of our professors and leaders have spent time in the US academic system, but they come from all over the world. The same is even more true for our students who come from 120 different countries. EPFL has been recently ranked as the most international campus by the Times Higher Education. Down the road, I would rather claim that EPFL invented a perfect blend, integrating American processes into a European culture with an international mindset.



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