Updated 11-March-2015: UK universities no longer have caps on EU/EAA students admitted with non-UK qualifications. Updated 31-May-2013 to reflect information from NARIC about UK recognition of the Swiss Maturité.
Expat parents in Switzerland frequently ask whether their children will have more options when applying to university with an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma or a Swiss Maturité. There is no simple answer to this question, although it helps if you are lucky enough to know the country where the student wants to study ahead of time.
The IB Diploma: Large Numbers and Standardization
In general, the IB diploma is more widely recognized than the Swiss Maturité because it is a well-defined and well-documented program, awarded annually to a large number of students. Exams are standardized and student marks are normalized across all students taking the exams, so a mark of 30 at one school is the same as 30 at a school on the other side of the world. Most universities know about the IB diploma and publish their IB recognition policies.
The Swiss Maturité: Small Numbers and Many Variations
The Swiss Maturité does not have the same level of international recognition as the IB because a much smaller number of students who complete this qualification apply to universities outside of Switzerland. After all, Switzerland has its own excellent, highly ranked universities with very low fees. Many foreign universities are not familiar with the Maturité, and what is not known tends to be considered less valuable.
All 26 cantons, as well as the federal government, have different curricula and different exams for their academic Maturités/Maturas, making it difficult for universities to understand each type of Swiss qualification. UK NARIC, the agency responsible for providing information on recognition of foreign academic qualifications, considers the Maturité based on the federal exam – the exam private school students sit – equivalent to federally-recognized maturités awarded by publicly-funded gymnases. Unfortunately, UK universities frequently require extremely high marks from students applying with a Maturité, causing many students to give up on the possibility.
There is one logistical complication to note for private school students who take the federal exam. Because they sit the summer exam late in August and early in September, it difficult to submit results in time for Fall admission to UK universities. Many of these students plan a gap year or a gap semester after taking the exams in the winter. Parents of students sitting the federal exam also complain of losing the summer to exam preparation.
Where the Maturité Shines
If your child wants to attend university in Switzerland, it is easier with a Swiss Maturité because maturité students are automatically admitted to any Swiss university. This is as true for students who barely pass as it is for students who have top marks. Swiss universities require the full IB diploma, specific IB courses, marks that are well above average, and sometimes an entrance exam.
When US colleges and universities know the Swiss Maturité well, they seem to be big fans. An admissions officer from Harvard recently stated that, in the past few years, Harvard has admitted more students from Switzerland with the Maturité than with an IB diploma.
When to Change Programs
If your child is very young, you don’t need to decide now. From an academic standpoint, it is typically easier to move from local schools to an international school. You can move them at the end of primary school, or even as late as year 8, 9 or 10, as long as they are fluent in English – and assuming the international school has space. Not to minimize the international school space issue, but there is some flexibility in terms of when a student makes the move.
Dual IB/Matura Programs
Some gymnasiums in Basel and Zurich offer top students the opportunity to complete both qualifications – a Swiss Matura from their canton and an IB diploma – at the same time and with little additional work. Those cantons acknowledge issues with international recognition of the Swiss Matura and adopted this approach to maximize opportunities for their students. It appears there would be significant demand for such a program in cantons with large numbers of expats such as Vaud and Geneva. Although canton Vaud schools are consider a dual IB/Maturité program, it does not appear to be a high priority.