Swiss higher education is suffering from the same malaise afflicting most of its neighbours - rising demand, soaring costs and dwindling resources.
The key factor is the increasing load of students whom universities have, by law, to admit. Enrolments have risen by 74 per cent since the late 1970s and universities simply do not have the means to expand.
Some cantonal universities have recently renewed demands to limit access to certain departments, in particular medicine, which devours 45 per cent of resources. This clashes with the established federal principle of higher education on demand, in which any school graduate, from any canton, can enrol at the university of his or her choice.
The canton of Zurich has scheduled a referendum for March 15 in which citizens will be called to vote on whether Zurich University can limit access to its medical faculty or not. A yes vote would create a precedent both for other cantons, and other faculties.
Rudolf Naegeli, secretary general of the Swiss Rectors' Conference, said: "In principle we are in favour of completely open access to all universities. There is however a general consensus in the rectors' conference that, faced with ever growing numbers of students and the cost maintaining standards with declining budgets, the only solution is to introduce selective admissions. There is no federal organisation that monitors demand for doctors, engineers, and so on, and we have suddenly discovered that Switzerland has far too many doctors."
The main opposition comes from student movements, and, somewhat vaguely, from the moderately leftist Social Democrats. But even the Social Democrats, with two seats on the seven-member federal council, have different attitudes at local and federal level and appear to be accepting the idea of "programmed" admissions.
The federation has passed legislation transforming 36 advanced technical colleges and commercial and management colleges into a unified network of technical universities, Fachhochschulen, offering two and three-year degree courses in technical, commercial and other fields. It is hoped that this will take some of the pressure of demand off the universities.
Nivardo Ischi, secretary general of the Swiss University Conference, which brings together the education ministers of cantons, rectors and federal politicians, said: "We are upgrading and integrating the old technical colleges.
"There will be a wider range of subjects, in particular in the humanities and social fields, and a great deal of applied research. The first Fachhochschulen are already operating, and the rest will be ready in the next couple of years. We are aiming for a very high level by 2003."
These changes are conditioned at every turn by rivalry between cantons and by the traditional issue of the autonomy of the cantons from the federal authorities in Bern. The proceedings have set in motion a complex political, legislative and administrative machine (there are 26 cantonal ministers of education) for a student body of under 92,000.
The country has ten cantonal universities, in Lausanne, Geneva, Neuchatel, Fribourg, Basle, Bern, St Gall, Lugano and Lucerne. In addition, the federation controls the Federal Institutes of Technology in Lausanne and Zurich, which enjoy better financial support, better student-teacher ratios and are reputed to be a cut above the cantonal universities.
The cantonal universities are totally and proudly autonomous, but since 1969 have received substantial financial support from Bern. The 16 cantons without universities have to pay the cantons with universities for their students studying there.
The two federal polytechnics in Lausanne and Zurich are state supported. The confederation pays for more than 40 per cent of higher education, or more than 60 per cent if one includes special funding for research through the National Science Foundation.
There has been some discussion of the possible integration of a number of cantonal universities into a co-ordinated system in which each university would specialise. This appeals particularly to the French-speaking cantons. Given the short distances, students could easily take courses at different universities.