Andrew Oswald: What we can learn from the Swiss

I did not expect to be living in Switzerland in the month the world's financial system splintered. This episode has reinforced in my mind the need for disinterested intellectual leaders who can offer reliable advice in a crisis. These rare people are all trained in universities, and many work in universities. Whatever one's view of the causes of the crash – and academic economists have to take a share of the blame – it has shown that society needs astute thinkers to help get us out of the mess.

Few Britons or Americans realise that Switzerland has more resident Nobel Prize-winners per head of population than any country. It has three universities among the world's top 100, according to the World Academic Ranking of Universities, produced by Jiao Tong University. Yet Switzerland has a population about one-fiftieth the size of that of the United States – and its universities are home to some of Europe's best economists.

What is Switzerland's secret? First, the country runs on high degrees of trust and common sense. I see this every morning at my tram stop. The Zurich trams run every six minutes and on time; their numbers are colour-coded; the signs clearly show where the trams are going; there appear to be no ticket inspectors, yet everyone buys a ticket. Because the trams are clean, reliable and quiet, it is pointless to drive. So the air is clean. Perhaps that is why almost everyone looks healthy.

Crucially, the educated middle classes here happily travel on the trams, and a virtuous equilibrium is the result. This prevents the erosion of quality and behaviour that happens routinely in nations where middle-class people disdain public transport.

Second, Switzerland's universities have a sensible autonomy that a British university would envy. Universities here have freedom and, being run by fine scholars, use it shrewdly.

Third, Swiss universities are the product of an unusually democratic structure and this leads to consistent funding from taxpayers. There is agreement about what counts as a desirable outcome. Professor Uschi Backes-Gellner of the University of Zurich has argued persuasively that Switzerland's universities are successful because they are pragmatic and have good quality-control. They are plainly committed to excellence. I have attended seminars of fantastic quality. The nation has accepted that it wants world-class universities and will pay what that takes. Faced by the size of countries like the Usa, or even the UK, this takes courage and thinking through; Switzerland has that and has done that.

Fourth, even though, in human relations, trust valuably begets trust, it's necessary to have checks. Swiss higher education is carefully evaluated. There is formal comparison against international standards. Quality audits occur every six years. But, importantly, there is nothing as overpoweringly bureaucratic as the UK's Research Assessment Exercise, which exemplifies the low-trust model. In Switzerland, an independent unit is responsible for much of the evaluation. It uses judgement, bibliometric measures from the Web of Science, and much else. Almost everyone I speak to thinks this natural and that assessments are done in an even-handed, professional way – and, unlike in Britain, quietly. Switzerland runs on compelling logic, not compulsion.

Fifth, the salaries are good. But they are also remarkably flat at the top end. As far as I can tell, a Nobel Prize-winner does not earn much more than a regular professor. Whether that can be maintained remains to be seen. A key element is that both young and older scholars are paid well. Postdoctoral researchers can make £40,000 a year in their twenties. This is obvious good sense.

Switzerland offers a glimpse of the way a civilised nation, and university system, can be organised. Small countries need to make it with their heads. This one does. The UK is not the only country that could learn from it.



The writer is professor of economics at the University of Warwick, and visiting professor at the Socioeconomic Institute, University of Zurich

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Manchester United's kit for the 2014/15 season
football
News
Nadine Gordimer died peacefully at home yesterday
peopleNobel laureate was a powerful anti-Apartheid voice
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Neil Young performs on stage at Hyde Park
musicAnd his Hyde Park set has rhyme and reason, writes Nick Hasted
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Extras
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Infrastructure Engineer

£28000 - £34000 per annum + excellent bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: In...

SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: PSHE Teacher required in Devon - Star...

SEN PPA Cover Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Teacher Jobs in Devon Devon

BSL Level 2 or above - Behaviour Support Assistant

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: We are looking for Teaching ...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor