At the end of 2011, the total number of students at ETH Zurich and EPFL was 25,629. That is an increase of 6.3% on the previous year. In fact, the number of new admissions rose by 6.9%. "Four or five years ago, people were complaining about the shortage of students studying engineering and natural sciences.
This increase fulfils a long-standing wish on the part of the Swiss economy and Swiss society," said Fritz Schiesser, President of the ETH Board, at the annual media conference held by the strategy-forming body for the ETH Domain. Unfortunately, however, investment in education has not kept pace with student numbers. "The professor-to-student ratio is deteriorating - slowly, but steadily."
The scale of the annual growth in state funding for education, research and innovation in 2013-16 has not yet been announced. The 4% increase envisaged by the Swiss Federal Council is 2% below what is required. Nevertheless, following intervention by the education sector, the rise will not now, as was originally proposed, take place on a stop-go basis, but will be evenly spread, said Fritz Schiesser. He also added that it may be possible to generate more income by increasing tuition fees, but that this was politically controversial. It would in any case have only a limited effect.
At this media briefing, it was not only Adrienne Corboud Fumagalli, Vice-President for Innovation and Technology Transfer at EPF Lausanne, who made a strong case for the ETH Domain but also two heavyweights from the world of industry: Hans Hess, Chairman of Swissmem, the association for the Swiss engineering, electrical and metal industries, and Michael F. Plüss, Vice-Chairman of scienceindustries, the business association for the chemical, pharmaceutical and biotech industries. Schiesser said that this underlined the central role played by the ETH Domain in knowledge and technology transfer in Switzerland.
People not downloads
Hans Hess called this the "elixir of life for the export industry". Switzerland was still the most innovative country in the world. To stay that way, it would need highly trained experts at all levels, if necessary drawn from abroad. According to a survey by Swissmem in 2011, nearly 80% of large and medium-sized companies are suffering from a shortage of specialists. Nearly 70% of them fear that this will lead to their becoming less competitive, said Hans Hess: "Innovation requires people, you can't just download it from the Internet."
Like the President of the ETH Board, he stressed that the pleasing rise in the number of engineering students at ETH required more consistent growth in funding, if the quality of the education was to be maintained. Furthermore, efforts to attract more young people into technical courses and professions must not let up. "Especially the potential for attracting more women into industry is still not being exploited," declared Hans Hess.
"Jobs follow people"
Michael F. Plüss added an international aspect to this argument. Nowadays, the place where a company sets up its research and development department depends increasingly on the availability of highly-qualified staff. "Nowadays, the best scientists want to be close to other outstanding specialists, wherever they may be in the world." This cluster effect was increasingly turning the old rule that "people follow jobs" on its head: "jobs follow people". In Life Sciences, Switzerland's leading position as a research centre was no longer undisputed, now that China, Singapore, Israel and Brazil were working on building up their own expertise in molecular biology, gene technology and nano-medicine, supported by generous state funding. If Switzerland did not want to lose ground for good in this competition, it would have to provide the means for outstanding fundamental research in the long term, warned Plüss. That is why the chemical and pharmaceutical industry is calling for annual growth in funding of 6%.
The campus as a bridge to business
Adrienne Corboud Fumagalli showed in concrete terms how the ETH Domain is supporting and driving forward innovation. Its commitment extended from training via shared infrastructures for industry and university research such as at the Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center operated by IBM and ETH Zurich in Rüschlikon through to the sale of licences and the provision of services and expertise.
Key factors for successful cooperation included "commitment to an open campus and sufficient financial resources to bridge lean phases in the innovation process," said Corboud Fumagalli. The approximately 700 research agreements signed by ETH Zurich in 2011 alone showed just how close these links are. 219 of those were concluded with Swiss small and medium-sized companies.
Provided by ETH Zurich
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