Swiss education is plotting its course to sustainability

ETH Kuppel
© ETH Zürich / Esther Ramseier

Many actors are promoting the themes of sustainable development and resource conservation in university and vocational education. Priority is often given to a concentrated approach. Critics feel things are not moving fast enough – sustainability competencies lack more than ever in practice.

By Yvonne von Hunnius, 15.04.2016

“We can be still be really green on campus; our most sustainable influence is that we are training responsible people and developing new technologies that shape the future – our product is the transfer of knowledge and technologies to society,” says Christine Bratrich, Director of Sustainability at ETH Zurich. Swiss higher education and vocational institutions hold the future in their hands and bear a great deal of responsibility for it. To create a resource-conserving economy and consumption as soon as possible, Switzerland will need not only competent entrepreneurs and employees, but also innovative research. And this is happening to a large extent in educational institutions, which are consciously putting the theme of sustainable development and resource conservation on the agenda in teaching, research and business. But how serious is Switzerland taking these issues?

Concern for freedom in research and teaching

The entire ETH field is taking it seriously, including two universities, ETH Zurich and EPFL in Lausanne, and four research institutes. The current strategic plan states that their goal is to provide companies with the foundations of sustainable development. Clear words, paired with areas of focus too. But how this is applied concretely in life should not and cannot be dictated, says Bratrich. “Freedom in research and teaching is essential. We encourage critical thinking and promote initiatives. But it is the researchers, lecturers and students who turn them into something great”.

ETH-Woche Welternährung
Once a year in the fall, ETH Zurich holds ETH Week, where students get together in small interdisciplinary groups to discuss, work on and think about important issues. The focus is specifically placed on challenges. In 2015, it was feeding the world, and this year’s focus is water.
© ETH Zürich / Allessandro Della Bella

For that purpose, ETH Zurich has built an inspired network that gives priority to the theme. The “ETH Sustainability” department was founded in 2008 and reports directly to the president. The department has since networked with actors and implemented its own projects. As a result, sustainable development is not only formally integrated in teaching, research and business, but also on a multidisciplinary basis - as a priority. The principle seems to function extremely well. One example is the Seed Sustainability Programme, which allows companies to address their sustainability questions at the ETH. In fact, students have already worked on improving the use of resources at companies such as Rivella, ABB or in coop studies.

Networking creates momentum

Institutions approach the theme very differently. Among other things, the University of Lausanne dedicates a prorector to the issue, while the University of Bern has created an interdisciplinary centre for sustainable development. “This diversity is positive because it allows each institution to plot the best course for itself”, says Gabriela Wülser. She is responsible for a programme at Swiss science academies that is designed to better entrench sustainable development in higher learning. On behalf of the Conference of Swiss Universities, the “Sustainable Development at Universities Programme”, or SD-Universities Programme, was launched.

It took two years to develop it into a participative process. “But the time and effort were worth it, because we gave the theme some momentum”, says Wülser. Over 50 teaching and research projects and student initiatives were supported with a total of CHF 4 million. Forward-looking teaching projects at the University of Neuchâtel and the University of Basel were some of them: In these projects, concepts are being developed for integrative agri-ecology and in connection with ethics, health and sustainable development. An inter-university consortium is developing a platform designed to provide an overview of Swiss research in the area of sustainability.

In the area of student projects, a four-year follow-up programme is slated to begin next year with a budget of CHF 1.5 million. It focuses on a larger target group: universities, ETHs, universities of applied sciences, teacher training universities and other institutions. This is in the spirit of the new Higher Education Act (HEdA), which came into force at the beginning of 2015 and provides a legal framework for all Swiss institutions of higher learning. The project also aims to make sustainable development a required programme. Institutions seeking accreditation must carry out their functions in line with the principles of sustainable development.

The five institutions of higher learning in Zurich, i.e. ETH, UZH, ZHdK, ZHAW and PHZH, held a fourth Sustainability Week in 2016 – together with over 50 students.
Urban gardening activity as part of Sustainability Week 2016 (in front of main ETH building and elsewhere).
© Nachhaltigkeitswoche

Concrete competencies are in demand

A milestone? Education expert Ueli Bernhard does not think that this project is concrete enough. “We still don’t have any experience with this accreditation process, so I do not have high expectations for its effectiveness”, he says. Bernhard is CEO of the Education Coalition NGO, which has teamed up with over 30 national organisations such as youth and environmental associations in order to fight for suitable education for future generations. He believes that more funding instruments are required. Although the SD-Universities Programme has a good approach, due to the current cuts, the programme has no teeth. He points to the Canton of Bern as an example: Education directors have added sustainable development to the mandate so that everyone must now act together – and that means secondary schools, universities of applied sciences and universities. Bernhard thinks that a national definition of concrete competencies is lacking in particular. He asks: “What kind of knowledge of sustainable development and resource conservation does an investment advisor, a board member or a Migros store manager need?” Only when these questions are answered can we prepare people for the future working world.

Bernhard thinks that basic vocational education has already made significant progress: Competencies for the protection and sustainable use of natural resources and efficient, sustainable energy use are continuously being included in education ordinances and plans. The Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) provides advice on implementation – whenever there are verifications, reviews or new developments. In 2013, an individual cleantech information sheet was prepared for each occupation , which should help exploit cleantech improvement potentials.

The end of the cap on the Swiss Franc slows demand

At the management level, hopes are largely set on continuing education in working life. For instance, specific certificates of advanced studies (CAS) are now offered. As CAS Manager in Sustainable Management, Gerhard Schneider is responsible for these certificates at the University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland. The professor for sustainable development says: “We want the practical projects of participants to have direct benefits for companies and for the participants to engage with the full range of business issues, as well as corporate social responsibility and environmental responsibility, which may open new fields of business”. However, interest in general continuing education courses has dropped sharply. Why? Since the end of the cap on the Swiss Franc, businesses have been in crisis mode and slashed their continuing education budgets. Specific courses on environmental law and energy themes are the exceptions.

Peter Lehmann feels the same. He is Director of Sanu Future Learning AG in Biel, a national education and consulting company for sustainable development. He also notices the trend toward a dwindling willingness to invest in continuing education on the topic of resources. “Compared to earlier, the topic of sustainability is more strongly established in the economy, but management training still barely reflects this”, he says. Sanu is trying to establish sustainability as a core theme in good management and not put it in a separate field. According to Lehmann, schools should use this approach: “Sustainable development must become a theme in the basic education of future lawmakers, economists and other decision-makers – there is no alternative to sustainable development”.

Sanu Flottenmanagement
Every year, Sanu offers 120 education and consulting projects in three languages.
Practical seminar: Sustainable Fleet Management.
© sanu

CHF 20 million for sustainable economy research

At the end of March, the Federal Council launched a national programme entitled “Sustainable Economy: Resource-Friendly, Future Oriented, Innovative” (NFP 73). Led by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), this programme is intended to develop solutions that will improve resource use, resource security and, finally, Switzerland’s competitiveness. A budget of CHF 20 million was allocated to this five-year programme. The call for tenders should begin in June 2016 – researchers will then have three months to submit their proposals. Projects will be selected in summer of 2017.


Bildungsführer sanu

Environmental and sustainable development education leaders

Sanu Future Learning Ag regularly publishes an education guide that provides an overview of the education opportunities offered in the area of environment and sustainability. The latest edition was released in mid-February in German and French and included 200 educational opportunities in Switzerland and neighbouring countries. It takes account of the wide variety of educational requirements and degrees. It also features many new teaching opportunities in the field of spatial development, tourism, energy and sustainable construction.



Comment by Benoît Frund, Lausanne

L'université de Lausanne n'a pas "parfois" (de doit être une mauvaise traduction) nommé un "pro-recteur"! L'UNIL a nommé un vice-recteur en charge de la politique de durabilité. Mais elle a également lancé un master spécialisé, elle dispose d'un institut de durabilité, elle mène de nombreux projets en la matière (, dont une plateforme de recherche-action sur les aspects sociaux de la transitions énergétique ( Nous serions heureux que vous citiez ces éléments également. Cordialement.

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Last modification 22.04.2016

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