Inside ETH Zurich: one of the world’s most international universities

Switzerland’s flagship university has always been international, but has never been more in need of its global outlook, says Sarah Springman

March 20, 2019
ETH Zurich
Source: ETH Zurich/Gian Marco Castelberg

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How does a public institution in Switzerland with strong national roots become one of the world’s most international universities?

International by design

Switzerland is a small country with few natural resources, so intellectual capital is the major asset in this knowledge-based economy. From its inception in 1855, ETH Zurich has maintained a strategic outward orientation. Since its foundation and until the late 19th century, about half of the professors and many students came from abroad. This mix of Swiss and international thinkers is credited as one of the forces driving industrialisation and the development of national infrastructure in Switzerland.

In terms of strategic outlook not much has changed since the days when Albert Einstein graced the halls of ETH Zurich, except the sheer size of the institution. Today, 530 professors – approximately 70 per cent of whom are non-Swiss – and some 1,000 non-professorial teaching staff educate a highly diverse body of 21,000 students from 120 countries.

ETH Zurich’s aim, then and now, is to attract and generate the talent required by a thriving Swiss and global economy. Graduates take their knowledge and skills into a globally connected workplace and are in high demand by Swiss employers: one year post-graduation, 75 per cent of international graduates work in Switzerland. The greater Zurich area owes much of its economic success to ETH Zurich. The beneficiaries are not only Swiss industrial champions and local small and medium-sized technology leaders. International companies like Google, IBM Research, Disney Research and Microsoft have found a rich talent resource in Zurich. This thriving ecosystem is a further reason for international students to choose ETH Zurich in the first place.

Cultivating talent

Like a botanical garden, ETH Zurich dedicates its resources to cultivating an environment where international talent and innovation thrive. The institution’s “bottom-up” culture allows for a high degree of autonomy and responsibility at all levels of the organisation. Such a culture provides the optimal environment for intrinsically motivated people, attracting the best of the best. Professors, staff and students find excellent resources in terms of funding and infrastructure, as well as high-quality working and living conditions.

ETH Zurich’s culture encourages students to propose and develop projects, and self-organise competitive teams. Recent examples include the world record breaking AMZ Formula Electric and Driverless Racing team, or the Swissloop team that will compete, for the third year in a row, in the finals of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Pod Competition. The contest sees teams design a prototype vehicle to test the feasibility of the concept of a hyperloop – a sealed tube or system of tubes through which a pod may travel free of air resistance or friction.

ETH Zurich students, Swiss and international alike, benefit from astonishingly low tuition fees. Financial support is available both on a needs-tested basis and through excellence scholarships. International students receive support with immigration formalities, access to low-cost housing, academic-level language courses and help with their integration into the academic environment.

Global reputation of UK universities declines ahead of Brexit

Collaborating for resolution

Life at Switzerland’s universities is not without its challenges. There are two in particular faced by ETH Zurich. Firstly, as a public university, the institution is obligated to respect an open access policy to education and must accept any Swiss student who has completed a “Matura” (the Swiss upper secondary school diploma) into any of its engineering and science undergraduate programmes. Maintaining quality without being able to control the entering cohort is a constant balancing act that requires a permanent dialogue with the school system and policy makers.

Secondly, we anxiously await the outcome of political discussions over Switzerland’s access to Horizon Europe – the €100 billion (£86 billion) research and innovation programme. ETH Zurich considers Switzerland’s full association to the European Union (EU) research area as a necessity and to be in the mutual interest of both Switzerland and the EU. The risk of being left out is a threat to the international attractiveness of ETH Zurich for prospective professors and students, and to our access to research partnerships with European peers – a risk that institutions in the UK may also face post-Brexit.

Today’s complexities require a global outlook in order to shape independent thinkers and multidisciplinary problem solvers. To address this challenge the university nurtures more than 9,000 individual and international research collaborations, educational partnerships and industry relationships with some of the top technology companies around the world.

ETH Zurich’s lasting international legacy, however, comes from its more than 65,000 talented alumni and alumnae, who have shaped more than 400 spin-off companies, including Sensirion, Pregnolia and Teralytics.

Sarah Springman is rector of ETH Zurich.

ETH Zurich is the host of the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit 2019, which will take place from 10 to 12 September 2019 and explore the theme of “How talent thrives”. Find out more information about the programme and how to register.

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