Let Bachelor’s holders work first!

Have you done any further professional training in the last five years? If not, then one reason is probably the education system and its rigid qualifications, says Lukas Sigrist.

One-third of the Swiss population hasn’t done any further professional training in the last five years. This is the finding of a survey conducted by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. Respondents cited several reasons, including lack of time, family commitments and costs. For me, these figures show that Switzerland’s current model of continuing education needs to evolve.

The model today is characterised by longer-term, self-contained continuing education programmes (Master’s degrees, professional qualifications or Certificates of Advanced Studies). It comes as little surprise that, in recent years, the programmes offered by ETH Zurich’s School for Continuing Education have seen their strongest growth in the shortest format - the Certificate of Advanced Studies, or CAS. The same trend can also be observed throughout Switzerland. CAS programmes are easy to combine with professional life or family commitments, and in some cases they can be accumulated piece by piece - or CAS by CAS - to achieve a higher qualification. The current discussion in the European Union about "microcredentials" shows that there is demand for training in highly specialised subjects offered in even shorter formats.

Lukas Sigrist studied chemistry at ETH Zurich and has been head of the offices of the ETH School for Continuing Education since 2019. He is also Vice President of Swissuni, the Swiss association for university continuing education.

In the future, I believe such channels and formats will play a subordinate role anyway. (Continuing) education will no longer take place in discrete timeframes; instead, it will become much more of a continuum of learning achievement in which gaps in knowledge and expertise are filled as required. Such a system would come closer to the concept of "lifelong learning" than the current model.

If we take this concept further, we will also need to change the basic programme of academic studies.

"It follows that it would no longer make sense for someone to learn the majority of their field’s expertise in a Bachelor’s or Master’s programme at the start of their career. "

We’ve known for years that a degree is no longer enough for one’s entire professional life. The idea of continuing education was born out of the need to supplement and expand existing knowledge and skills from time to time. If "from time to time" becomes "continuously" in the future, the previous front-loading model will also lose its justification. It follows that it would no longer make sense for someone to learn the majority of their field’s expertise in a Bachelor’s or Master’s programme at the start of their career.

The Bachelor’s degree as an entry ticket to the labour market

Instead, we need to go back to the original idea of Bologna: the Bachelor’s degree is supposed to open the door to the labour market, while Master’s courses are already a specialisation and only really make sense as further studies for a select group of people. In such a future, a Master’s degree programme would no longer be an integral part of basic education. This view is already a reality at universities of applied sciences, and such trends are already recognisable at other institutions of higher education.

Some may argue that trimming an undergraduate degree programme causes it to lose its specialist basis and thus its quality. This argument only works, however, if an undergraduate degree programme is viewed as an isolated and self-contained unit, with continuing education seen as an option for filling in gaps in one’s knowledge. But if we assume that there will no longer be seamless training programmes and that continuing education will become the norm, the picture changes as the boundaries become blurred: whether a programme counts as training or rather as continuing education will then no longer play such an important role. And continuous education that flows smoothly into working life also has its advantages. Even today, the quality of a training programme is measured not only by the quantity of knowledge imparted but also by how it can be applied.

Continuing Education Forum 2024 on 23 April

What does the future of continuing education look like? This question will be discussed by experts at the 2024 Continuing Education Forum held by the School for Continuing Education. Speakers include manager and ETH Alumni Association President Jeannine Pilloud, Prof. Ulf-Daniel Ehlers from the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University and Swissuni President Christina Cuonz.

ETH President Joël Mesot will say a few words of welcome and Rector Günther Dissertori will close.

The ETH Zurich Continuing Education Forum is primarily aimed at the university’s teaching staff, especially those who are involved in continuing education at ETH Zurich or who are interested in offering a continuing education programme or course. However, interested external parties are welcome as well.

Dr. Lukas Sigrist