Heavy workload, great achievement: ETH

Nieuws | de redactie
24 september 2008 | In 1901 the first Nobel Prize for achievements in psychics was awarded to Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen, who was connected to Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zürich. More than a century and 20 Nobel Laureates later, ETH is still at the forefront in Europe.

The 2007/08 CHE Excellence Ranking of research programs in biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics & astronomy, shows ETH among the top four universities in Europe. ScienceGuide profiles this outstanding institute, with also an analysis of its performance in physics and an interview with the Rector on its future developmant and views of excellence in European HE.

ETH Zurich is an institution of the Swiss Confederation, affiliated to the Federal Department of the Interior. Together with the ETH Lausanne and four other research institutes it forms the federally directed, and to a major degree financed, ETH domain. The lion’s share of the total ETH budget, which exceeds almost €1,3 billion, goes to Zurich. This allows them to maintain a total teaching and research staff of almost 5500 people, of which 368 are professorial posts – of these only 34 are filled by women. Considering that ETH has 13999 students, this means a total number of 38 students per professor. Read our interview with the Rector, prof Heidi Wunderli- Allenspach here.


Though ETH is located in a small country it aims to have a leading role in research. With a focus on quality and an international outlook ETH is able to compete with the world’s best universities. ETH recruits its academic staff and students worldwide and it seeks to establish international links and cooperations. For example, more than 50% of its professors and doctoral students are foreigners –most of them German or American. ETH’s ambition is not to merely participate in already known problems, but to identify new problems and respond to changing global conditions. Focusing more and more on cross-disciplinary research ETH believes that ‘a network of knowledge and skills acquired in an interdisciplinary environment best respond to the natural and cultural interdependencies of life’. Last year the innovative spirit in Zurich led to a record number of 79 new inventions and the registration of 21 new spin-off companies. According to ETH reports this is due not least to the ways in which it uses its research resources: namely that in a highly competitive internal award system those projects are selected that satisfy the highest international standards. In distributing funds the university relies on the expertise of individual disciplines. The Executive Board, on the basis of recommendations by the Research Commission, decides specifically which projects are supported. This Research Commission in turn calls on international experts in making its recommendations. These experts take a close and critical look at the project proposals in order to provide an opinion.


ETH Zurich is divided into 16 departments and currently offers a range of courses comprising of 23 Bachelor and 34 Master programs. The core areas of engineering, natural sciences, architecture and mathematics form the basis of education at ETH. In addition courses in physical education and military sciences are offered. A quarter of the 13999 students are foreigners. Every year there is a growing number of international applicants, especially for the master courses. Many masters are taught in English, while basically every bachelor program is in German. ‘Only’ 14% of the bachelor students are Swiss. According to study the ETH students have the heaviest workload of all students in Switzerland as their courses and teachers are very demanding. Just as with its research the growing focus on interdisciplinarity is also present in ETH’s educational programs. One of the main educational goals at ETH is to teach students the ability to take part in interdisciplinary activities. There are no strict selective procedures for those who want to apply for undergraduate studies. Admission to one of the Master programs depends more heavily on the applicant’s prior qualifications. Furthermore, as ETH Zurich takes into account the fact that learning is being seen more and more as a life-long process, the basic curriculum is relatively short and is later supplemented by postgraduate and other educational courses. This is done to promote a more rapid transfer of knowledge and technology between the university and the outside world.


At ETH a crucial factor in successful research is collaboration. ETH is an active member of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Control(IPCC) which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. To answer to the growing need for interdisciplinary research ETH has formed various ‘competence centres’. According to ETH these are ‘networks where ETH professorships or ETH institutes from various fields coordinate their scientific work, in some cases with external partners, while pursuing common strategic aims’. Some of the centres are shared with other universities, for example with its next-door neighbour the University of Zurich. ETH is a member of the IDEA league, a strategic alliance between Imperial College London, TU Delft, ETH Zurich, RWTH Aachen and ParisTech. It is also a member of IARU, the International Alliance of Research Universities, which is a global alliance of ten internationally renowned research universities. Moreover ETH Zurich is Leading House in the Sino-Swiss Science and Technology Cooperation. Besides collaborating with other universities, ETH has many strategic partnerships with various companies. Last year ETH announced that they would establish partnerships with IBM en The Walt Disney Company.


This  academic year at ETH started with 2200 new bachelor students, an increase of 7% compared to last year. The most noteworthy growth is in the civil engineering and computer science programmes. “The new induction statistics imply a revived interest in the engineering profession”, comments Rector Heidi Wunderli-Allenspach in response to these latest figures. “We are delighted and see it as the culmination of intensified efforts on the part of ETH Zurich and our partners from colleges and the economy over the last few years to get information out”, she explains. “The only flaw of the good results is the dip in real figures of the government’s contribution – particularly in light of rising student numbers.”

Initial feedback concerning the Bologna System reveals that more than 90% of all Bachelor graduates at ETH Zurich go on to complete a Master’s degree. A Master’s degree, then, seems to be the rule and according to Heidi Wunderli-Allenspach this is important because “at ETH Zurich we stress time and again that we do not consider a Bachelor’s degree to be sufficient qualification for entry into professional life.” For more information on rector Wunderli-Allenspach read the interview Scienceguide has recently had with her.


For the next couple of years, ETH Zurich has set itself the target of ‘further building on its reputation as an international centre of excellence. Of particular importance are fields pertaining to research policy, including engineering and sustainability research, and the intensification of international activities, especially partnerships with Asian countries. To ensure that the high quality of teaching can be maintained in the future and new areas of research can be opened up, about 80 additional professorships are to be created by the year 2015’.

One of the 368 professors at ETH Zurich is prof. dr. Friso van der Veen, head of the Research Department of Synchrotron Radiation and Nanotechnology. ScienceGuide had a talk with him about the excellent ETH department of physics. You can read the analysis and our conversation with him here.

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