While parents in countries such as the United States are draining their life savings by paying over $75,000 a year for their children’s tuition at prestigious universities such as Harvard, students from all over the world willing to take an extra step for elite education are flocking to the ETH Zurich in Switzerland – and paying up to 98% less. The percentage of foreign students at the ETH has more than doubled since 2004.
The ETH is one of the two federally funded “technical” universities in Switzerland. It is one of the global leaders in fields such as computer science, biology, math, chemistry and physics. According to roundranking.com the ETH Zurich occupies the spot of 7th best university worldwide, but compared to other elite universities it remains very affordable. For one year students merely have to find approximately 1400 Swiss francs (≈$1430) for all courses. That compares to about $6
9,000 at Cambridge in the UK or $53,000 at Stanford in the United States.
“I first became aware of the ETH Zurich through my Swiss boyfriend”, says Tina Severt, from California who now studies computer science at the ETH.
“I was really surprised when I found out that international students have the same tariffs as Swiss students.” Like Tina, other students from abroad have discovered this value for money. Universities in other countries such as UCLA in the USA or Oxford in the UK charge foreign students up to five times more for tuition. At the ETH the rates are equal for everyone studying there.
“It‘s not quite as good as it sounds though”, Tina remarks, “Everything else here is much more expensive than back at home.”
The ETH itself confirms that living in Zurich is almost twice as expensive as life at British or American universities. It costs approximately 13‘500 Swiss francs (≈$14,000) in Zurich compared to about $8,000 in Los Angeles.
That difference however, is more than offset by the cheaper tuition costs. Tina is happy to be in Zurich. She is impressed by the standards of the ETH and definitely doesn’t regret going there.
The ETH’s reputation and its first-rate facilities attract not only students but also highly regarded academics. Sebastian Bonhoeffer, a theoretical biologist at the ETH confirms: “The laboratories as well as the office spaces are very well equipped and spacious.” The excellent infrastructure is matched by salaries which are very generous on an international scale.
At the ETH, professors receive a considerable budget for research with which they can hire co-workers as well as directly finance their projects.
“This budget enables us professors to be very flexible when starting new projects. In other countries such as the USA we would have to file an application in order to begin a fresh project. Here we can just start straight away”, says Professor Bonhoeffer. He sees this as the main advantage the ETH has over universities abroad for research.
He does also have reservations about the ETH. The research teams are considerably larger than at the universities overseas. As a result there are fewer of the already highly contested professorships available, making the competition even tougher. “On the other hand, having large teams adds power to our projects – we can dig deeper and with more precision.”
The ETH also takes a different path when it comes to its selection process. Any student with a Swiss “Maturitaet” – the Swiss baccalaureate – has the right to study at the ETH. As a result classes are much larger in the first few terms. Challenging first year courses sift out a considerable proportion of the students.
Foreigners must take an entrance exam which can be challenging due to the exam being exclusively in German.
Zurich itself is known for diversity with nearly 40% of its permanent residents being foreigners. The ETH is no exception. It’s at number two in the global diversity rankings right beneath another Swiss university (EPF Lausanne).
“All in all it’s a privilege to study or teach at a Swiss university”, concludes Professor Bonhoeffer.