Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Swiss Universities

The first days of GPP have been a whirlwind. We visited Uni Zurich, ETH, and the Uni of Basel. I'll divide this post into observations about the universities followed by some personal remarks.

The most incredible feature of these world-class schools are there incredibly low fees and tuition. For example, the universitiy of Zurich charges €480 per semester, total. I know STEM majors at Virginia Tech who pay that much for textbooks. This allows students to pursue education without fear or massive debt. This creates opportunities for risk-taking insofar as students are free to study their passions. While this certainly enhances overall quality of life, it also allows for innovative research. Students can pursue grand ideas and test uncharted hypotheses. Their intellectual possiblilties are not constrained by compounding interest on their student-loans.

Another distinctive feature of the Swiss system is the specialization of the respective schools. The University of Basel does social sciences and humanities scholarship. It is the only school to clearly claim a philosophy faculty (department), for example. Likewise, only U Zurich has abstract STEM disciplines such as Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. The University of Swiss-Italy (Usi) applies these topics to human health and well-being.
I take this feature of the the Swiss system to be a mixed-blessing. On the one hand, it promotes specialization which concentrates the best minds in any given field together, at one university. It is no accident that U Zurich claims 21 Nobel Prize winners and 3 Fields Medalists. One the other hand, this method deprives whole regions and universities of entire disciplines. In effect, it is a hyper-siloing. Elite faculty in one uni do not have any need to be able to communicate their theoretical understanding to others. It deters interdisciplinary work. I speculate that some of the tangible benefits of the research being done in Switzerland are lost in this way. A mathematician may be doing cutting-edge work which could solve current problems,  but only 15 other people in the world can understand that work, much less apply it.

On a personal note, I arrived in Switzerland mentally scattered. Managing my own travels and business while traveling across three countries left me a bit burnt-out. Since starting the program I have lost my pants (don't ask me how) and my cell-phone. In both cases, Swiss people were incredibly accommodating. I young man waited for 15 mins at the train station for me to return my phone. He refused money when I tried to offer it to him as a reward. After getting 8 hours of sleep, I am collecting myself. I dont intend to lose anything else. We are traveling to Strasbourg in France today. I won't lose my passport!

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