Early observations on the difference between Swiss and U.K. university

…and an insight into what I’m actually doing here!

For those who’ve been wondering what on earth I’m actually doing with my life in between writing blog posts about mushrooms and posting scenic pictures of Lake Lugano, it will enlighten you to know that I am actually partaking in higher education! Bold of me to assume anyone cares, I know…

Edinburgh

I had been thinking about studying for a master’s in something more business-applicable than my undergraduate degree for awhile when Tom was offered his job in Lugano; given that my degree from the University of Edinburgh was in Philosophy and Politics, finding a more pragmatically-oriented master’s wasn’t particularly difficult. I initially considered the well-known Bocconi University in Milan, but the practicalities of commuting between Lugano and Milan (or paying rent for somewhere to stay in Milan) were discouraging. With a little additional research, I found the Università della Svizzera italiana (USI) in Lugano, a small but perfectly formed university in town offering a Master of Science in Economics, Major in Management – in English.

USI

So, to answer those who were wondering what I was doing – to be fair, not much over summer – I’m now studying this course.

I’m several weeks into classes and finding it particularly interesting to observe the stark differences between studying here and studying for my U.K. undergraduate degree. Obviously it’s hard to draw a direct comparison, not least because this is a master’s, not undergraduate, degree, and in a totally different subject type, at a much smaller institution. In addition, 2020 is hardly the right year to compare to my 2014-2018 university experience. Nonetheless, to inform others and just because I personally find it intriguing, I thought I’d write about some of the key differences I’ve encountered thus far.

1- Hours

The number of contact hours is, by far, the starkest difference I’ve noticed. In the final two years at Edinburgh, a busy week consisted of 6 contact hours; here, I average about 4 “contact” hours per day (if you include those lectures which are held online because of Covid – more on the university’s Covid handling strategies later).

Its hard to express what a shock to me it was to receive my ridiculously sparse schedule in the first year at Edinburgh – as someone who thrives on structure, I found it very strange indeed. In my final two years at Edinburgh, I had 3 modules per term – here, I have 6, and the intensity of the work load per module is equivalent.

I’ve heard plenty of justifications for the laissez faire teaching methods of UK universities over the years. Apparently, they encourage independent learning and allow you to develop a rich set of hobbies outside of class. Obviously, the experience of a STEM or Medicine student would differ from that of a humanities student such as myself. Nevertheless, the way I saw it, it was more a way to squeeze in more students (money!) while encouraging professors to focus on research rather than teaching (also, money!). I liked most of my professors very much, and they shared the same frustrations about balancing research and providing a high standard of teaching as university education continued on its path to full commodification.

I’ve perhaps been infected by my previous hands-off university experience and my recent period of funemployment, but the intensity has been a bit of a struggle to adjust to. A happy medium would be nice, but at least I certainly do feel that I’m getting my money’s worth (more on that later).

2- Assessment Styles

This is an area in which it’s particularly hard to draw comparisons, simply because the subject I’m now studying is so different from that which I previously studied. Thus far, the course is much more hands-on and project-based than my Edinburgh course was, but I reckon that’s more a consequence of it being a business degree than some cultural variation in education style. I appreciate the frequency with which we get feedback here for our multiple submissions, as opposed to having a handful of annual submissions on which a huge amount of your GPA rests.

Idyllic scenes on campus

The course also involves exams, which I haven’t actually done since my second year at Edinburgh because I was doing an essay-based subject. Indeed, other than my thesis, I’m not aware of a single essay I’ll have to write. Surprisingly this doesn’t bother me that much – I was never that great at writing academic papers anyways, professors always criticising my propensity to write more like a journalist than an academic. Hopefully my goldfish memory can be fine tuned enough to pass. I’ll keep you posted.

3- Covid Handling

A very 2020 category of evaluation! It was always going to be very difficult for universities to combine a strong pandemic response with a good student experience, and here I’ll take a brief look at how they are doing.

A message from quarantined Manchester Met students

A couple of weeks into term, everything I read (and hear through friends) about the Covid situation at UK universities is very worrying. Of the limited sample I know, I’m aware of two people who’ve tested positive, and several people cohabiting with people who have tested positive. It appears to me that universities have prioritised money over student welfare in their decisions to encourage students to return to campus, despite knowing that pretty much all teaching would be online. There also seems to be a great deal of finger-pointing at students for supposedly spreading the virus – who knew that tiny, poorly ventilated student accommodation housing people from all corners of the world would become a petri-dish for the virus? I can’t pretend to have a solution to any of this; on the plus side it has brought to the fore an overdue conversation about virtual learning, student landlords, university fees and what the university experience means as a whole.

And what of Switzerland? So far, so… okay over here, although it does feel like a bit of a ticking time bomb. Of all the countries I’ve visited since Covid took over the global consciousness, I have to say that Switzerland is the one which, surprisingly given the Swiss reputation, takes it the least seriously. Many of my classmates are cross-border students, commuting from Italy (it’s only 30 minutes away – less than your standard London commute), and they share my shock at the super-relaxed Swiss attitudes. It perhaps helps the university’s case that many people reside at home or in private accommodation rather than student halls. As numbers continue to rise, it feels a little like we’re burying our heads in the sand. Nonetheless, and without wanting to jinx it, there has yet to be a significant covid scare at the university.

The university is very stringent in cleaning classrooms after lectures and tutorials, and there are hand sanitiser stations everywhere. Mask-wearing is now compulsory after an initial lack of adoption (I’m glad I got to know the bottom half of everyone’s face before this became a rule). We have a biweekly system where one week, one set of classes will occur physically, and the next week another will, the in-between classes being virtual. It seems to work pretty well so far. I would prefer all classes to be physical, but given the circumstances I’m glad that any at all are.

4- Price

Despite holding a British passport, I was classified as an international student in Edinburgh, ergo paid fees in the region of £14,000 per year. With the above lack of contact in mind, this was frankly a completely ridiculous sum. I don’t doubt that my degree will bring me more value than the expenditure on it over the years to come, but it’s the final result, a piece of paper, that affords me the privileges of a Russell Group university graduate, not the value of the teaching.

Master’s degrees are expensive. My degree at USI is 8,000chf per year (it is a two year course, which is the standard in Europe but I must say was rather off-putting to me). A one-year Master’s in Management from the London School of Economics (LSE) costs £32,184 for UK/EU and international students alike. My alma mater, Edinburgh, would charge me £24,900 for the same one-year degree. Of course, the prestige value of graduating from LSE is greater than the relatively unknown USI (though this likely depends on where you are).

We must consider value for money here too in terms of pure educational value, rather than reputation of the university: a friend who studied for a Master’s in International Political Economy from King’s College London said that she was lucky to get six hours’ contact in an entire week – this programme would’ve cost me £23,550. As I previously mentioned, in terms of contact hours alone I feel I’m getting a much better deal here than I would be in the U.K., and I personally learn better with more contact.

Lugano is by no means a cheap place to live – rents are cheaper, but day-to-day life (minus the need to waste money on the disgusting tube) is generally more expensive than London (Switzerland consistently tops the Big Mac Index). I recognise how lucky I am to be here with Tom, which makes life easier, and how lucky I am to be supported by my family to afford any education at all, as my meagre savings after living in London could hardly cover a penny. Even at a fraction of the cost of a LSE master’s, 16,000chf is no small sum of money, and we must also factor in two years worth of forgone earnings and living costs. Still, I do feel that thus far, the fees are quite justified – they make my undergraduate fees felt like daylight robbery.

Top of the Big Mac index, but at least the setting is nice

5- Extracurricular

San Salvatore, “Il Pan di Zucchero”

Ask anyone what they regret most about their university experience and almost all will tell you that they didn’t take enough advantage of the breadth of extracurricular societies available. From boardgames, to hiking, to quidditch (Harry Potter was written in Edinburgh), Edinburgh had plenty to offer in this space. Indeed, one of my regrets is actually not taking greater advantage of the wonderful opportunities these offered. I went on a handful of hiking society hikes, but really should’ve done more to explore the landscape of beautiful Scotland. I really enjoyed my role in the International Development Society, where we organised interesting and topical events, from which I learned very much. Wine society was amazing. Were I to have my time again, I’d definitely dive in deeper. But alas, the past is the past!

I even attended math soc… as a +1 (get it? Lmao)

Naturally, given the above, I thought uni round II would be a good opportunity to get more involved. USI, however, has a student population about a tenth of the size of Edinburgh’s, and a large proportion of that is Italian-speaking and lives across the border. Consequently, the variety of societies available is quite substantially less. This doesn’t particularly bother me as a master’s student (and a bit of a naturally inclined loner), as I feel my priorities are a little different, but it would be nice to have a bit more on offer here. In any case, I have no problem filling my spare time with all the amazing outdoor activities on my doorstep.

6- Miscellaneous

The university provides free Italian classes to enrolled students, which is awesome – if I can manage it (my pronunciation is frankly laughable and I seem to have the memory of a goldfish), learning Italian would possibly be the greatest value add of my Swiss university experience. The lessons I’ve had so far are impressively comprehensive, group sizes are small and the teacher is a delight. 10/10 for this service, which is no doubt saving me a fortune on tutoring costs.

Alice in Milan, with about the same level of cultural sensitivity & language ability as Emily in Paris

To conclude…

It was a given that I would attend a UK university for my undergraduate studies. I didn’t for a second consider going elsewhere. If I were to do it again, would I? Perhaps, though so many good things came out of my Edinburgh experience that I wouldn’t take it back. This post wasn’t meant as a total indictment of the UK system, which I do think has its merits, but more to raise some issues to think about before choosing a higher education establishment – there are alternatives (though they may be fewer after Brexit). I must reiterate that any comparison done in 2020 is bound to be skewed; what a bizarre year to be starting at any educational establishment.

I hope that I’ve sated your curiosity as to what I’m doing. At this very moment, I’m procrastinating. I’m nonetheless enjoying the experience so far, and I’m very thankful to be here in this beautiful city. If you have any further questions about my experience / are thinking about doing a master’s yourself, don’t hesitate to message me via Instagram DMs. For now, I’d best get back to the grind!

-Alice

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