Labour markets, human capital and inequality

Economic Survey of Switzerland 2009: Raising education outcomes


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The following OECD assessment and recommendations summarise chapter 5 of the Economic Survey of Switzerland published on 15 January 2010.

See also: Raising education outcomes in Switzerland, OECD Economics Department Working Paper, No.838, February 2011.



Improving education outcomes help raise productivity performance in the long-term

The Swiss education system performs well in many important dimensions. Education outcomes at age 15 are excellent in international comparison, although this reflects in part high education attainment among parents and high per-capita income. A well developed vocational education system promotes the very successful integration of youth into the labour market. Universities enjoy an excellent reputation and participation in continuous education is among the highest in the OECD. Nonetheless, scope remains to improve productivity performance and living standards through education.

  • While spending per pupil on primary and lower secondary education is high, the education outcomes of children with modest socio-economic background and children who are not native speakers of the local language fall short of high Swiss overall standards. This partly reflects the high share of school children with immigration background relative to most OECD countries, but this fact makes successful integration particularly important. The provision of formal childcare and early childhood education can be useful in this regard, but is underdeveloped.
  • In tertiary education, while public spending per student is generous in international comparison, attainment rates for young workers are low for a high-income OECD country. This reflects the size of the successful vocational educational system, in which some degrees offer qualifications that may be similar to tertiary qualifications in other countries. However, raising supply of workers educated at the tertiary level could improve productivity performance.

The contribution of pre-primary education and childcare to subsequent education outcomes could be improved

Attendance of pre-primary education is still relatively low, especially in institutional childcare at age below 4 and among children with low socio-economic background. Geographic externalities in the provision of childcare—with public funding mostly supplied by municipalities—contribute to underprovision. Federal subsidies are low, their design distorts competition between existing and newly created facilities, and they are not conditional on federal evaluation of quality. Government subsidies towards the provision of childcare facilities for children below the age of 4 should be provided in the form of a nation-wide voucher scheme that would be linked to a system of accreditation of facilities. 11 out of 26 cantons have agreed to introduce compulsory education from the age of 4 in a cross-cantonal agreement (the HarmoS concordat). In many cantons, doing so requires approval through a referendum. So far, 7 have rejected joining the concordat. Compulsory, free pre-primary education from the age of 4 should be introduced, as foreseen in the HarmoS concordat, where this is not already the case. Common educational objectives for this educational phase should be set. 

Compulsory education can become more efficient

Differences across cantons in spending per pupil, resource utilisation and policies are considerable in compulsory education. While many cantons have made efforts to introduce mechanisms of accountability, these programmes have not generally allowed comparisons of school performance across cantons, foregoing the opportunity to determine best practice. Where the HarmoS concordat was approved, cantons will evaluate pupil performance against common education standards in various stages of compulsory schooling. Implementation of this programme is important, so as to be able to identify best practice among cantonal education policies. The impact of differences in education policy, spending and resources across cantons should be investigated regularly and the results published so as to determine best practice.

Expenditure per pupil on primary education and GDP per capita across cantons
2005, CHF


Source: Swiss Federal Statistical Office, 2008.

Schools have considerable autonomy in making personnel and budget decisions. Empirical evidence suggests that autonomy of schools in these respects can raise performance if combined with accountability. Accountability of individual schools for education outcomes should be strengthened. To this end, external testing should be conducted at regular intervals over time and over the school career at all schools, and the results should be benchmarked against the newly defined standards.

School management teams with clearly defined responsibilities make it easier to hold schools accountable for performance. In schools of sufficient size head teachers should be the rule. Their responsibilities should include setting of objectives, developing plans to improve education practice as well as evaluate and help develop teaching skills. Head teachers should be required to acquire management skills in all cantons. Efforts to define such minimum standards nation-wide are underway.

The impact of socio-economic background on educational outcomes and attainment can be reduced

While cantonal school systems vary, with some cantons providing single-track compulsory schooling, most systems select pupils into tracks with different demands on pupils’ academic performance. In most cantons first tracking occurs when pupils are 13 years old, although in a few this happens at the age of 11. In many cases parents appear to take the final decision about which track their children will enrol in. While the purpose of tracking is to provide education appropriate to students’ abilities, socio-economic background and differences in cantonal procedure appear to play a determining role. Yet the tracking decision has a crucial influence on the probability to pursue university education later on and may limit the access of talented youth from low socio-economic background to higher education. First tracking should be postponed to the age of 13, as foreseen in the HarmoS concordat, at least.

PISA scores in selected OECD countries: overall average scores and average scores for pupils with a less advantaged economic, social and cultural status ¹
Mathematics, reading and science


1. Students with a less advantaged status are the bottom quarter of the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status.
2. Data for the United States on the reading scale have not been published.
Source: OECD, PISA 2006.

Funding mechanisms for tertiary education could be improved further

Swiss universities rank highly internationally in terms of research output, thanks to wide-ranging autonomy and generous government funding. Over the past 10 years, the introduction of the universities of applied sciences, where the teaching contents are more practice-oriented compared to the more academic education in universities, have improved opportunities for graduates from the vocational upper secondary education track to obtain tertiary academic credentials. The increase in supply which will level off due to the maturing of the system has been absorbed by the labour market easily and with high match quality. It has been supplemented by large immigration of tertiary graduates which suggests that a larger supply of tertiary graduates could help the most productive firms to expand. Moreover, as workers age, labour market performance of tertiary graduates evolves considerably more favourably than for workers with intermediate training. As suggested by stronger wage growth over the life cycle of tertiary graduates and possibly a lower depreciation of acquired skills, a larger supply of tertiary graduates could have benefits for productivity performance in the context of demographic ageing.

Fees have been introduced in all of these institutions, although they finance a negligible share of education costs. However, few students receive financial support through government-sponsored loan schemes. An inter-cantonal agreement is in the process of being adopted and will set common standards for means tested support to students. If adopted, it will allow disbursement of one third of the financial support in the form of a loan. While continued access to grants for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds should be ensured, government-sponsored loan schemes with income-contingent repayments should be more widely introduced. Such loans could improve access, especially in tertiary vocational schools, for which fees are already onerous, while their payoff in terms of improved earnings and employment prospects is particularly high. They are particularly effective in raising access if they also cover living expenses. Since students obtain a large part of the benefits of their studies through higher subsequent earnings, study fees at institutions offering tertiary academic education should be raised. Empirical evidence indicates that raising study fees is compatible with widening access if accompanied by government-sponsored loan schemes. Moreover, such fees could help prevent the risk that the high budgetary cost of tertiary academic education dissuades cantons from widening access to pathways leading to university education when the economic benefit is significant.


How to obtain this publication


The complete edition of the Economic Survey of Switzerland is available from:

The Policy Brief (pdf format) can be downloaded in English. It contains the OECD assessment and recommendations. 


Additional information

For further information please contact the Switzerland Desk at the OECD Economics Department at

The OECD Secretariat’s draft report was prepared by Andrés Fuentes, Charles Pigott and Eduardo Camero under the supervision of Pierre Beynet. Statistical assistance was provided by Patrizio Sicari. The survey also benefited from external consultancy work.




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