“PhDs and other diplomas are weakly regulated in Switzerland”

This is an onsite edited excerpt of our latest G|O Briefing.

An interview with the Swiss Accreditation Council's Secretary, Bastien Brodard. As Brodard explains, the accreditation process is not without surprises. And, as often in Switzerland, it is made more complicated by the shared responsibilities between the Federal government and the cantons.

Sarah Zeines: The Swiss Accreditation Council (SAC) has decided to conditionally certify Swiss UMEF. Amongst other problems flagged by the auditors, the SAC’s report, in French, stressed that “PhDs in applied sciences do not count as authorized [diplomas].”

Some cantons prohibit appellations such as “Bachelor” or “Master” in schools that are not certified by the SAC. Yet a quick scroll through Geneva’s many non-SAC-accredited private schools reveals a large market for PhDs. Why is this allowed?

Bastien Brodard, Secretary of the SAC: PhDs and other diplomas are weakly regulated in Switzerland. There are no rules at the federal level, and some cantons—notably Geneva, which hosts a number of these institutions—seem to favor the free use of these titles. Other cantons are more restrictive (Art. 62 in the Higher Education Act).

How do you explain this?

The cantons are sovereign when it comes to regulating education. The federal law sets some basic standards but does not impose their specific application.

How often does the Council refuse to certify an institution after an audit that reveals significant problems?

It has never happened so far. And one of the reasons is that a legal precedent was set in 2020 when the SAC refused to certify FernUni Schweiz [UniDistance Suisse in French], a distance learning school. The school appealed the decision before the Federal Administrative Court and won. The court’s ruling essentially backed the idea that the Council need to give applicants the right to be heard.

If conditions listed by the SAC are not implemented within a reasonable deadline, accreditations can ultimately be revoked. But even if they are not met, an accreditation termination needs to be proportional to the issues at stake. Also, it is not unusual to see schools that have been audited pull out mid-process to avoid having their reputations damaged—namely, if the SAC were to issue a long list of requirements to be met as part of a conditional accreditation. It’s worth noting that of the 53 universities accredited so far, 43 have had one or more conditions attached.

In the end, institutional accreditation—some schools only benefit from program accreditations—doesn’t focus on the quality of an institution itself. Rather, it depends on its quality assurance system.

In 2022, SAC delivered 21 certifications, eight of which were issued to private schools. How does the accreditation process work?

There are several stages. First, a school makes a formal request.

Secondly, the SAC decides whether or not to admit the establishment to the process, based on the credibility of the fulfillment of several formal criteria, such as sufficient resources to maintain activities durably, the existence of a quality assurance system, and compatibility with the European Higher Education Area. The conditions are detailed in the Accreditation Ordinance (Art. 4).

If it meets the Ordinance’s criteria, the school then selects an SAC-approved auditing agency to write a report about the institution. The experts assess whether or not an institution is credible, before proposing an accreditation with or without conditions that need to be met, based on their findings. The audit is shared with the school to enable it to provide feedback and address the questions raised by the audit.

Once this process is completed, the SAC makes its decision based on the contents of the report, and, if needed, stipulates any changes to be implemented.

Private schools accredited by the SAC were told to drop “university” from their name. What’s the difference between an institute and a university?

A university—either a university or a “university of applied sciences”—differs from an institute in that it offers a wide range of degrees, in terms of levels and disciplines. According to the Higher Education Act, all types of higher education institutions must abide by the Humboldtian model of higher education if they wish to be accredited. This entails having a research foundation for the school that complements studies. It is not enough to simply offer academic content to the students; the school must also support new findings that nourish the curriculum. However, “institutes” can still meet the Higher Education Act’s standards—as is the case in Switzerland.

(This interview was edited for length and clarity)

-Bastien Brodard was interviewed by G|O's contributor Sarah Zeines