Anger in cantons as legislation gives polytechnics 'advantage'

January 28, 2000

A law that has given Switzerland's two federal polytechnics in Zurich and Lausanne more administrative autonomy has re-ignited their rivalry with the cantonal universities.

Some universities complain that while both polytechnics and universities operate with public money, the universities have less freedom to manage themselves, and will be at a disadvantage.

"The polytechnics are being given the means to manage themselves like private structures with public money," complained a vice-rector of the University of Geneva. The fear, widespread in the universities and expressed by some Swiss MPs, is that the polytechnics' greater autonomy, combined with their greater size, will allow them to gain prestige domestically and internationally, leaving the universities behind.

There is also an anxiety that the polytechnics will broaden their scope from primarily scientific subjects to offer others that are also covered by the universities, such as information technology. This could attract more students, obtain a bigger share of resources and outdistance the universities.

Under the new law, which is effective from this year, the polytechnics will be run by a financially autonomous council that will file an annual report only to central government. Resources come from the federal budget.

By contrast, the eight universities each belong to one of the 22 cantons. While much of their financial support is federal, they answer administratively to the cantonal governments and in most cases the cantonal minister of education is also president of the university.

Nivardo Ischi, director of the central university office - which brings together the cantons' education ministers - played down the conflict, saying:

"The policy of increasing autonomy, which began in 1991, is going ahead for polytechnics and universities. The new law is an important step forward for the polytechnics and not all the cantons are making the same reforms at the same pace, so there are discrepancies."

The polytechnics were united in their own defence. Francis Waldvogel, president of the federal polytechnics' council, said: "Since we are innovating, we will be ready to give the universities a hand, if they desire it."

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