AT A time when many post-communist countries are remodeling their education systems to meet the needs of the labour market and Europe is struggling to unify its higher education systems under the Bologna Reform, Rudolf Strahm – an economist and the president of the Association for Further Education in Switzerland – makes a strong case for the Swiss education system.
“Our wealth originates in our dual education system based on vocational training,” Strahm said in an interview for the Swiss weekly Weltwoche.
Is this why Switzerland, despite being at the bottom of OECD growth charts in the 1990s, has the lowest unemployment rate of all OECD countries, including the UK and USA?
Strahm believes so. In his recently published book, Why we are so wealthy - A guide to the Swiss economy (Warum wir so reich sind - Wirtschaftsbuch Schweiz), he argues that a vocational training system is key to improving growth and keeping unemployment low.
Strahm writes that the main asset of the dual system, which can be traced back to the German-speaking region of Switzerland, is that it combines academics with practical training, which ensures the development of the skills most sought after on the market.
Strahm points out that vocational schools are a fully-recognised part of higher education in Switzerland. In fact, he writes, 70 percent of Swiss young people opt for vocational training because it provides them with better career prospects.
Strahm also writes that what the market values above all is graduates with high “employability” - skills directly applicable to one’s field combined with the ability to be innovative.
In the interview for Weltwoche, Strahm contended that Switzerland has a stronger economy than many experts admit.
Swiss vocational education, which Strahm calls “Swissness,” attracts more people to education and the market because it is more practical, more responsive, and has much higher standards, he said. He also emphasised what he sees as the system’s economic benefit: a vocational trainee costs the state just 8,000 francs, compared to 20,000 for a student on track for university.
Strahm attributed little importance to the fact that a smaller percent of the Swiss population attends university than in other OECD states.
To illustrate his point, he told Weltwoche that if university education was a decisive economic factor, the unemployment rate in countries such as the UK and France would have long ago outperformed Switzerland. Furthermore, he expressed scepticism of the process behind the Bologna Reform, which he said accentuated academics over practical schooling.
Strahm also added that the people in politics and the upper echelons of society tend to be university graduates who refuse to acknowledge the advantages of vocational training.