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Tertiary education with high labour-market relevance – Swiss professional education and training

The professional education and training (PET) sector in Switzerland is the historical result of heterogeneous job-related continuing education and training (CET) that has been subject to very little regulation and today forms the non-academic component of tertiary education in the country. The PET sector was firmly established at Tertiary Level B (ISCED 5B) alongside Tertiary Level A (higher education or ISCED 5A) in the Federal Act of 13 December 2002 on Vocational and Professional Education and Training (VPETA, SR 412.10) and has thus been significantly upgraded in educational policy terms. The present article looks back at the development of the Swiss PET sector, debates how the various training courses offered within the PET sector have positioned themselves within the system and describes the areas of conflict in which current reform endeavours are taking place.

Historical development

The Swiss qualifications now designated as professional education and training can look back at a long history. Their historical development reflects the changes that have taken place on labour markets over the past 100 years, changes which have required differentiated occupational profiles, rising skills levels and an increased number of management positions. A federal examination for the certification of advanced qualifications (“master craftsman examination”) was, for example, firmly established in the first Vocational Training Act of 1930. This facilitated advancement to a line manager position and for certain occupations constituted a prerequisite for the training of apprentices (e.g. master carpenter). Several amendments for the expansion of job-related continuing education and training (CET) would later follow. The technical colleges (HTL) and a federal examination for the certification of standard qualifications were introduced in 1963. The aim of the latter was to demonstrate whether candidates were in possession of the occupational skills and knowledge required for the straightforward management of a company. By way of contrast, the examination for more advanced qualifications certified the ability to manage a larger company or to take on particularly qualified activities. The HTL’s tended to offer school-based provision and aimed to impart the knowledge and skills needed to exercise higher level technical occupations for which a higher education qualification was not required. Those successfully completing a course at an HTL earned the right to use the title “HTL Engineer” or “HTL Architect”. The next overhaul of the system (1978) extended the largely school-based system of job-related continuing education and training to encompass the so-called professional and technical colleges. New business colleges provided training for the demanding tasks set to arise in these areas in future. The title awarded was “Business economist HWV”. Since this time, the scope and structure of professional education and training has once again undergone considerable change. Two educational reforms exerted a major influence in this regard.

Tertiarisation of job-related CET

Figure Swiss educational system
Source: SERI 2014

Initial action to tertiarise professional education and training and move it in the direction of Tertiary Level A took place on the basis of the University of Applied Sciences Act of 1995 (cf. WEBER/TREMEL/BALTHASAR 2010). Professional and technical colleges such as the HTL and HWV, some of which had enjoyed a long tradition of being high-status training providers within the VET system, were transformed into Universities of Applied Sciences, the argument being that there was a lack of international recognition. They were removed from the job-related continuing education and training sector, brought together organisationally and repositioned as higher education institutions. This educational reform meant that more than half of the qualifications offered by the professional and technical colleges underwent a change in the way in which they were embedded in the educational system. This development was followed by the establishment of Universities of Applied Sciences (UAS) specialised in healthcare occupations and social work as well as the creation of Universities of Teacher Training (UTEs). The second tertiarisation took place when the Vocational Training Act was updated in 2002. The category of professional education and training (PET) was introduced, and both federal examinations and the professional and technical colleges that had remained in the job-related CET sector were repositioned at Tertiary Level B (cf. Figure).

Current positioning of PET within the Swiss educational system

Table Overview of professional education and training in Switzerland
Sources: SKBF 2014; SERI 2013; Econcept 2011

The reason given by the Swiss Federal Council (2000) for positioning professional education and training at Tertiary Level B was the demand for training provision in which requirements clearly exceed the level of basic upper secondary education. The intention was for professional education and training to be clearly positioned at tertiary level rather than being located between initial and continuing education and training. It was felt that this was the only way in which this particular level could develop its own identity and the sole means in which permeability could be defined and national transparency achieved. This makes professional education and training the only component of tertiary education in Switzerland for which an upper-secondary level baccalaureate is not an official entry requirement.

Today, the PET sector accounts for a high proportion of tertiary-level qualifications. In 2012, one-third (33.3%) of all tertiary-level qualifications issued in Switzerland originated from the Swiss PET sector (ISCED 5B) and two-thirds (66.7%) from the Swiss higher education sector (ISCED 5A). This can also be explained by the fact that vocational and professional education and training is very highly developed in Switzerland. Traditionally, two- thirds of all young people completing compulsory education in Switzerland enrol in an upper-secondary level VET programme and only one- third in general schooling (cf. Federal Statistical Office 2012, 2014). Professional education and training is thus an attractive subsequent training option for those who complete their initial training in one of approximately 250 occupations (in 2012 about 70,000 persons). Following completion of vocational education and training, immediate transitions to professional education and training are not the norm.

The federal examinations in particular require several years of work experience. The average age of those taking such examinations is over 30 (cf. econcept 2011). Despite the fact that candidates often have to pay high levels of fees themselves, PET qualifications are very much worthwhile for those who complete them. Holders of PET qualifications achieve above-average returns on their investment in education and training compared to those with other formal education qualifications. This can also be explained by the fact that a selected group of successful candidates is involved, who frequently receive strong employer support (cf. SKBF 2014). The Table shows an overview of the characteristics of the three types of professional education and training.

Federal examinations

One particular characteristic of federal examinations is the wide variety of certification available. This can lead to a new qualification (e.g. trainer holding a Federal PET Diploma), to specialisation (e.g. chartered accountant holding a Federal PET Diploma) or to a licence to practise in a profession (e.g. certified auditor). Preparatory courses for federal examinations are mostly offered by private training providers. Such courses are attended by 80 to 90 percent of learners and are usually completed on a part-time basis (cf. econcept 2011). In contrast to all other tertiary education programmes, only the examinations themselves are subject to state regulation, not the preparatory courses. This is a conscious decision in order to avoid the “schoolification” of provision and to maintain flexibility for labour market requirements (cf. econcept 2011). For this reason, however, there is also no state registration and no consistent monitoring of training providers, syllabuses or minimum requirements for lecturers (cf. Fleischmann 2011).

The respective professional organisations (mostly trade associations) initiate examinations should a new labour market need become apparent. They also establish the occupational profile, competences to be acquired, entry requirements and qualification procedures. Because federal examinations reflect the requirements of the labour market over the past 30 years and have developed in a non-standardised manner (cf. SCHMID/GONON 2013), the requirements level and the competences to be demonstrated in individual examinations of the same type (for the Federal PET or Advanced Federal PET Diploma) vary in different occupational fields. Only within the same occupational field does the principle apply that if a federal examination exists for both the Federal PET Diploma and the Advanced Federal PET Diploma, then it is the latter that represents a higher qualification level and the former must be completed beforehand.

PET colleges

Unlike federal examinations, PET colleges (also referred to as professional colleges) are more closely regulated at state level and pursue a school-based approach. Training courses at PET colleges are offered on a full-time and part-time basis. The core syllabuses used by PET colleges, which are jointly drawn up by the employer and employee organisations and training providers, also lead to a greater level of harmonisation of curricula and of the qualification procedures for individual degree programmes. The State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) initially approves the core syllabuses and uses a consistency test to recognise the individual degree programmes on this basis. Although this makes adaptations of learning content more cumbersome, the upside is that there is significantly higher transparency and comparability of qualifications. Compared to the federal examinations, PET colleges are significantly more closely aligned with Universities of Applied Sciences (UAS) at Tertiary Level A. Some of the Bachelor courses of study offered at Swiss UAS exhibit comparable learning times and occupational skills (for example in the case of healthcare occupations). PET colleges differ from UAS in the sense that they focus on a narrower professional area in terms of content and are less oriented towards academic research (cf. SERI 2013). An upper-secondary level qualification is required but not an academic one (i.e. baccalaureate).

Current educational policy issues

Professional education and training today enjoys broad cross-party support. The current Federal Government strategy project “Professional education and training” (SERI 2014) pursues the overarching aims of still providing attractive and labour market related training provision at tertiary level in 10 to 15 years’ time and of making a significant contribution to the competitiveness of Switzerland (cf. WIDMER 2013). The focus is on the goal of achieving increased public financing 1 and on urgent issues relating to positioning. The latter relates particularly to the increase of permeability between professional education and training and UAS and to the referencing of qualifications to the National Qualifications Framework (NQF-CH) within the scope of the Copenhagen Process. The issues that arise in this regard reveal the area of conflict in which federal examinations in particular have found themselves since their tertiarisation. On the one hand, there is praise for the flexibility, diversity and labour market connectivity of such provision. On the other hand, the heterogeneity of PET qualifications that results makes their clear profiling more difficult. This is, for example, shown in the fact that permeability from ISCED 5B to ISCED 5A has been insufficiently regulated and realised thus far. Those completing federal examinations receive very little credit transfer of competences for enrolment in a Swiss UAS. In contrast, holders of a Bachelor's or Master's degree from a UAS tend to receive the same level of recognition as holders of the Swiss Specialised Baccalaureate. In addition, credit transfer from PET college degree programmes to Bachelor's degree programmes is a further object of debate (cf. Rectors’ Conference of the Swiss Universities of Applied Sciences, KFH, 2014).

A further example of this area of conflict is the implementation of the Bologna Reform. This has bypassed professional education and training by establishing the internationally recognised titles of “Bachelor/Master” and makes a direct comparison of PET qualifications (ISCED 5B) with higher education qualifications (ISCED 5A) more difficult. A recent initiative aimed at introducing the titles of “Professional Bachelor/Master” was recently rejected by SERI. The decision was taken to maintain the distinction between academic and vocational/professional titles so as not to dilute the information content on skills achieved and access qualifications. The aim instead is to pursue international recognition by concentrating more on diploma supplements translated into English and by referencing VET and PET qualifications to the NQF-CH. Transparent categorisation of the requirement levels of the various qualifications would significantly simplify the profiling of Swiss professional education and training nationally and internationally. For this reason, a National Qualifications Framework for the Swiss VPET System (NQF VPET) is scheduled to enter into force in Switzerland on 1 October 2014 (SERI 2014). Under the direction of SERI and with the involvement of employer and employee organisations, the aim over several years is to evaluate over 400 PET qualifications on the basis of descriptors, map these qualifications to reference levels and integrate them in the NQF VPET. This will enable people to gain an overall view of the tertiarisation of professional education and training that took place twelve years ago since level changes in both directions will be possible, involving both downgrading and upgrading of qualifications. Although this categorisation process will mean that extensive negotiations between the branch representatives and vocational teaching experts can be expected, the transparency achieved may lead to a clearer positioning and significantly facilitate the comparability of the qualifications.


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OPET [Federal Office for Professional Education and Technology]: Facts and Figures: Professional Education and Training]. Bern 2011

FSO [Federal Statistical Office]: Höhere Berufsbildung. Bildungsabschlüsse 2012 [PET qualifications 2012]. Neuchâtel 2012

FSO [Federal Statistical Office]: Bildungsabschlüsse 1999-2012 [Educational qualifications 1999-2012]. Neuchâtel 2014 – URL: www.bfs.admin.ch/bfs/portal/de/index/themen/15/02/data/blank/07.html (Status: 21.05.2014)

ECONCEPT: Befragung der Kandidatinnen und Kandidaten der eidgenössischen Prüfungen im Bereich der höheren Berufsbildung [Survey of candidates for federal examinations ifor the Federal and Advanced Federal PET Diploma]. Zurich 2011 – URL: www.sbfi.admin.ch/hbb/02019/index.html?lang=de (Stand: 21.05.2014)

FLEISCHMANN, D.: Eine Bildungslandschaft wird inspiziert [Inspecting an educational system]. Folio (2011) 4, pp. 22–29

KFH [Rectors’ Conference of the Swiss Universities of Applied Sciences]: Entwurf Zulassung zum Bachelorstudium [Draft for admission to Bachelor courses of study]. Best Practice. Consultation version. Bern 2014

SERI [State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation]: Bildungsgänge an höheren Fachschulen [Professional college degree programmes]. Bern 2013 – URL: www.sbfi.admin.ch/berufsbildung/01472/01487/index.html?lang=de (Stand: 21.05.2014)

SERI [State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation]: Strategieprojekt höhere Berufsbildung [Strategic Project for Professional Education and Training]. Bern 2014 – URL: www.sbfi.admin.ch/hbb/index.html?lang=de (Stand: 21.05.2014)

SCHMID, E.; GONON, P.: Die höhere Berufsbildung unter Profilierungsdruck [Professional education and training under profiling pressure]. In: Maurer, M.; Gonon, P. (Eds.): Herausforderungen für die Berufsbildung in der Schweiz. Bestandsaufnahme und Perspektiven [Challenges for the Swiss vocational and professional education and training system. Inventory and perspectives]. Bern 2013, pp. 147–170

SWISS FEDERAL COUNCIL: Federal Council Dispatch on a new Federal Act on Vocational and Professional Education and Training (VPETA, SR 412.10). Bern 2000

SKBF [Swiss Coordination Centre for Research in Education] Swiss Education Report. Aarau 2014

WEBER, K.; TREMEL, P.; BALTHASAR, A.: Die Fachhochschulen in der Schweiz: Pfadabhängigkeit und Profilbildung [Universities of Applied Sciences in Switzerland. Pathway dependency and profile formation]. Swiss Political Science Review 16 (2010) 4, pp. 687–713

WIDMER, J.: Strategie des SBFI in der höheren Berufsbildung. Forum Höhere Fachschulvereinbarung (HFSV) [SERI Strategy for Professional Education and Training. Intercantonal Agreement on Funding Contributions for Professional College Degree Programmes]. Bern 2013 – URL: www.sbfi.admin.ch/hbb/02036/index.html?lang=de (Status: 21.05.2014)

Head of Research & Development, Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training, Zollikofen/Switzerland

MSc in Vocational Education and Training, Junior Researcher, research field: “Institutional conditions affecting VET/PET”, Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training, Zollikofen/Switzerland

Lic. phil., Project Head at the Centre for the Development of Occupations, Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education
and Training, Zollikofen/Switzerland

Translation from the Swiss original (published in BWP 4/2014 and Offprint: Pathways to an attractive VET system): MARTIN STUART KELSEY, Global Sprachteam Berlin

  • 1 Within this context, it should be pointed out that, within the scope of the strategy project, the objective is to bring about a significant increase in the proportion of public financing for the Swiss PET sector. As of the year 2013, state funding of federal examinations has already risen from 25 percent to between 60 and 80 percent. Efforts are also being made to establish direct payment of federal funding to participants in preparatory courses (cf. also SERI 2014).