In the past three days, our group has visited the University of Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) (both in Zurich, Swiss)), the University of Basel, the School of Arts and Design (both in Basel, Swiss), and the University of Strasbourg (in Strasbourg, France)! Holy cow, that’s a lot of universities to take in.
One of the coolest insights I’ve had so far, and one reason I’m really starting to like the Swiss system, is about the value they place of technical and vocational education. Where in America,, there is a class stratification between who attends a 4-year university, a 2-year community college, and no schooling beyond a high school diploma, the same is not true in Switzerland.
Rather then automatically spend 2-4 years in college post high school whether or not they’re ready, students can opt to move into the Vocational Education system, start an apprenticeship right away. From there, the student gains hands-on job skills and can eventually earn a number of federal certificates of higher education through work and testing and eventually a federal diploma of higher education.
Given that many more students opt for the vocational track (ses chart below), clearly it’s not seen as a second-rate option but rather just a different life course. According to the 2017 Swiss Report on Vocational Training (it’s in English):
The Swiss VPET system enables young people to enter the labour market and ensures that there are enough skilled workers and managers in the future. It has a high labour market relevance and is an integral part of the education system.
And the students are not getting an inferior education, rather they’re just starting their specialized training earlier and beginning to earn real money sooner. A Time Magazine article on the vocational system in Switzerland reports on a 19-year-old male vocational student
This spring, after he completed his three-year business training at an insurance company, the 19-year-old was hired by a telecommunications firm; his job as a customer care representative offers a starting salary of $52,000 a year, a generous annual bonus, and a four-week paid vacation – no small potatoes for the teenager who is still living at home and has no plans to move out.
What if America began valuing vocational education students on the same level as those who attend bachelor’s program? How would that change our social class stratification at all? Could it even work?
Probably not, according to the Time Magazine article. Mostly because
…the idea of ‘sorting’ high school kids into different tracks, with some going to college and others into vocational programs, is unacceptable.” The VET program such as it exists in Switzerland would require a higher degree of market and business regulations, which would (also) be overwhelmingly rejected in America.
It seems a shame really. With less debt for students and more qualified students entering the workforce, and even getting trained by the companies that hire them, the Swiss systems seems like a win-win for everyone.