The Swiss education system is organised in a decentralised manner. The primary responsibility for education lies with the cantons. They are responsible for the education system, except where the Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation (Article 61 ff.) declares the Confederation, or the Confederation and cantons together, to be competent.
- In the compulsory education sector (primary level including pre-school or the first learning cycle, and lower secondary level) the cantons and their communes are responsible for regulation and enforcement.
- In the post-compulsory education sector (upper secondary level and tertiary sector) the regulatory competence lies both with the cantons and the Confederation. Except for the universities of the Confederation, the cantons are responsible for enforcement.
- Vocational and professional education and training (vocational education and training, tertiary level professional education and continuing professional development) is regulated by the Confederation. Here, too, the cantons are responsible for enforcement.
In matters which require a joint solution, the cantons coordinate between each other. For some areas the Federal Constitution lays down an obligation for the cantons to coordinate (e.g. coordination of the cantons in the compulsory education sector, collaboration and cooperation between the Confederation and cantons in the higher education sector).
Administration and governance at national level
Compulsory education sector
The cantons and their communes, not the Confederation, are responsible for the regulation of and enforcement in the compulsory education sector (primary level including pre-school or the first learning cycle, and lower secondary level).
Please refer to the chapter Administration and Governance at Local and/or Institutional Level.
Post-compulsory education sector
Secondary sector: upper secondary level
At upper secondary level, which is divided into general education and vocational and professional education and training courses, regulatory responsibility lies with both the cantons and the Confederation.
The general education schools incorporate baccalaureate schools and upper secondary specialised schools, which are managed by the cantons.
The Confederation and the cantons together ensure that the cantonal baccalaureates are equivalent and comply with the national and intercantonal minimum requirements. To this end they have each adopted their own, but identical, regulations on recognition: baccalaureates are recognised under the Verordnung über die Anerkennung von gymnasialen Maturitätsausweisen (MAV) [Ordinance on the recognition of baccalaureates (Baccalaureate Recognition Ordinance)] or the Reglement der EDK über die Anerkennung von gymnasialen Maturitätsausweisen (MAR) [EDK regulation on the recognition of baccalaureates)].
The Swiss baccalaureate examination commission (SMK) is the joint commission of the Confederation (Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research [EAER]) and the cantons (Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education [EDK]). The SMK submits applications to the EAER and the EDK for the recognition of cantonal baccalaureates and checks that the recognised schools are complying with the terms of recognition. They organise the Swiss baccalaureate examinations. The SMK is made up of experts who, on behalf of the Confederation and the cantons, deal with issues relating to the baccalaureate and the recognition of baccalaureates at national level.
Upper secondary specialised schools
The Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK) is responsible for the recognition of upper secondary specialised schools throughout Switzerland. Recognition of upper secondary specialised schools and their leaving certificates is carried out on the basis of the intercantonal diploma recognition agreement (Interkantonale Vereinbarung über die Anerkennung von Ausbildungsabschlüssen [Intercantonal Agreement on the Recognition of Educational Qualifications]) and the Reglement über die Anerkennung der Abschlüsse von Fachmittelschulen [Regulation on the Recognition of Certificates from Upper Secondary Specialised Schools] which is based on that agreement, and the related guidelines.
Vocational education and training (VET), including the Federal Vocational Baccalaureate, is regulated by the Bundesgesetz über die Berufsbildung [Federal Act on Vocational and Professional Education and Training (VPETA)] (VPETA). Vocational education and training is managed federally in partnership between the Confederation, the cantons and the professional organisations. The professional organisations define the educational content. The cantons are responsible for implementing vocational education and training.
The strategic management and development of vocational education and training are tasks of the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) (Article 63(1) of the Federal Constitution).
At tertiary level, which is divided into a higher education sector and a tertiary level professional education sector, both the cantons and the Confederation have legislative powers.
Higher education sector
Under the article on higher education institutions of the Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation (Article 63a), the Confederation and the cantons are jointly responsible for coordinating and guaranteeing quality in the Swiss higher education sector. The higher education sector includes the universities, the universities of applied sciences and the universities of teacher education.
To implement this constitutional obligation three decrees were issued:
- Federal Act on Funding and Coordination of the Higher Education Sector (HEdA)
- Interkantonale Vereinbarung über den schweizerischen Hochschulbereich (Hochschulkonkordat) [Intercantonal Agreement on Higher Education (Higher Education Agreement]
- Vereinbarung vom zwischen dem Bund und den Kantonen über die Zusammenarbeit im Hochschulbereich [Agreement between the Confederation and the Cantons on Cooperation in the Field of University Education]
The cooperation agreement created the joint organs, namely the Swiss University Conference (Schweizerische Hochschulkonferenz), the Rectors’ Conference of the Swiss Universities (swissuniversities), and the Swiss Accreditation Council. Each university and each university institution of the Confederation and the cantons also has its own legal basis laid down by the respective funding state communities.
The SUC is the supreme body of the Confederation and the cantons on higher education policy. Its members are responsible for the nationwide coordination of federal and cantonal activities in the higher education sector. It deals with matters relating to the tasks of the higher education funding bodies. The SUC meets in two forms, the Plenary Assembly and Higher Education Council. The Higher Education Council may, amongst others, enact regulations on study levels and transitions between them, uniform designation of titles, permeability and mobility, and recognition of qualifications The Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK) remains responsible for nationwide recognition of qualifications from universities of teacher education (teaching degrees and diplomas in the educational and therapeutic field). The same applies to the teaching degrees and diplomas in the educational and therapeutic field awarded at universities and universities of applied sciences. The basis is the Intercantonal Agreement on the Recognition of Educational Qualifications (intercantonal diploma recognition agreement).
The Rectors’ Conference of the Swiss Universities (swissuniversities) represents the interests of higher education institutions. The Rectors’ Conference has three chambers, one each for the universities, the universities of applied sciences and the universities of teacher education. These chambers fulfil tasks specific to each type of higher education institution.
The Swiss Accreditation Council, acting as an expert panel, ensures that all Swiss higher education institutions receive accreditation following a uniform process. Through institutional accreditation, higher education institutions are given the right to use in their name the term “university”, “university of applied sciences” or “university of teacher education”, or a derivative such as in particular “university institute” or “university of applied sciences institute”. Private providers have to undergo the same accreditation procedure if they wish to use a designation that is protected throughout Switzerland.
In the higher education sector the Confederation manages and operates the two Federal Institutes of Technology and has the authority to regulate them (Federal Act on the Federal Institutes of Technology [FIT Act]).
The Board for the Federal Institutes of Technology (FIT Board) is the strategic management and supervisory body in the FIT sector chosen by the Federal Council. It represents the FIT sector vis-à-vis the Confederation authorities and is responsible for implementing the strategic objectives of the Federal Council, as well as for the four-year strategy and the allocation of federal funds to the institutions. The Federal Institutes of Technology are responsible for operational management.
The ten cantonal universities come within the regulatory competence of the canton in which each is located. Please refer to the chapter Administration and Governance at Local and/or Institutional Level.
Universities of applied sciences
The Confederation and the cantons together regulate the universities of applied sciences according to their sphere of competence. The universities of applied sciences come within the regulatory competence of the Confederation. The cantons are responsible for enforcement and supervision. The universities of teacher education fall within the regulatory competence of the cantons and are subject to cantonal and intercantonal regulations. The funding bodies for the universities of applied sciences and the universities of teacher education are the cantons or groups of cantons.
Tertiary level professional education sector
Tertiary level professional education covers the non-university sector of the tertiary level. It is regulated by the Federal Act on Vocational and Professional Education and Training (VPETA). It is managed federally in partnership between the Confederation, the cantons and the professional organisations. The professional organisations define the educational content. The cantons are responsible for implementing vocational and professional education and training on the basis of federal legislation.
Federal Diploma of Higher Education and Advanced Federal Diploma of Higher Education
The competent professional organisations regulate the admission requirements, learning content, qualification procedures, diplomas and titles. The regulations are subject to approval by the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI). Preparatory courses for the Federal Diploma of Higher Education and the Advanced Federal Diploma of Higher Education are held by cantonal educational institutions, training centres, professional associations and private education providers. They are not regulated by the state and are not subject to state supervision.
Colleges of higher education
The SERI is the competent authority for recognising courses of education. The cantons supervise the courses of study of the colleges of higher education.
The recognition requirements and procedures are governed by the EAER Ordinance on the Minimum Requirements for the Recognition of Courses of Study and Post-Graduate Programmes at colleges of higher education.
Administration and governance at intercantonal level
In view of the cantonal sovereignty in the education sector and the variety of levels of responsibility there is a great need for coordination in the Swiss education system. The cantonal ministers of education of the 26 cantonal governments therefore form a political authority at national level, the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education (EDK).
The EDK was founded in 1897, to represent the common interests of the cantons particularly vis-à-vis the Confederation. The EDK has a subsidiary role and only fulfils tasks which cannot be performed by the cantons. The EDK represents the cantons vis-à-vis the Confederation in the fields of education, culture, sport and youth promotion, and participates in international cooperation in these areas. The EDK is also the Confederation’s negotiating partner in those areas of education in which the Confederation and the cantons share responsibility. The EDK also represents the interests of the cantons on educational and cultural matters abroad.
EDK cooperation is based on a number of legally binding treaties called "Interkantonale Vereinbarungen" ["intercantonal agreements"]. The treaties are binding on the signatory cantons. The Intercantonal Agreement of 29 October 1970 on Education Coordination is an indirect legislative and contractual treaty, which obliges the cantons to cooperate generally in the field of education and culture. The cantons party to the Agreement were empowered to align their school legislation in the fields of school entry age, duration of compulsory schooling, number of weeks of school per year, the start of the academic year and the duration of schooling up to the baccalaureate. The Intercantonal Agreement on Education Coordination also empowers the EDK to formally adopt recommendations to the cantons. These recommendations (Empfehlungen) are not legally binding, but have a great impact in terms of harmonisation and coordination. Other instruments include declarations, directives and framework curricula.
The Intercantonal Agreement on Education Coordination has from the early 1990s been supplemented by intercantonal agreements on the recognition of diplomas and agreements on funding and freedom of movement, to ensure mobility throughout Switzerland:
- in its sphere of competence, the EDK can, on the basis of the Intercantonal Agreement on the Recognition of Educational Qualifications, recognise cantonal educational and professional qualifications throughout Switzerland and lay down minimum standards for recognition.
- The agreements on funding and freedom of movement adopted by the EDK since 1991 allow equal access to education institutions (particularly in the tertiary sector) throughout Switzerland. The agreements also regulate the equalisation of burdens between the cantons.
The structural cornerstones of school starting age and the length of compulsory education laid down in the Intercantonal Agreement on Education Coordination were amended by the Interkantonale Vereinbarung über die Harmonisierung der obligatorischen Schule (HarmoS-Konkordat) [Intercantonal Agreement on Harmonisation of Compulsory Education (HarmoS Agreement)] which entered into force on 1 August 2009.
In an Intercantonal Agreement on Cooperation in Special Needs Education (Interkantonale Vereinbarung über die Zusammenarbeit im Bereich der Sonderpädagogik) enacted on 1 January 2011 the cantons set out joint framework conditions in the field of special education.
The Intercantonal Agreement on the Harmonisation of Education Contributions (Interkantonale Vereinbarung zur Harmonisierung von Ausbildungsbeiträgen), which entered into force on 1 March 2013, lays down principles and minimum standards for awarding education contributions.
The Interkantonale Vereinbarung über den Hochschulbereich (Hochschulkonkordat) [Intercantonal Agreement on Higher Education (Higher Education Agreement)] enacted on 1 January 2015 regulates cooperation between the cantons which have signed the agreement and cooperation between those cantons and the Confederation in the Swiss higher education sector.