Picture yourself an incoming education minister in one of the EU countries — Germany, France, UK — who declares that he would like fewer students to graduate and go to university. Imagine the clamor. Even in the US — where the secretary of education does not in fact have much sway over high schools, managed locally, or universities, controlled by the states or by private organizations — outrage would erupt. Assume for good measure that he criticizes immigrants for pushing their children to educate themselves. Pretty unthinkable.
Johann Schneider-Ammann will be education minister of Switzerland starting in 2013. (The seeming innocuousness of this factual statement belies the uniqueness of the situation: rather than ministries in the usual sense, Switzerland has federal departments, and their management rotates among the seven Federal Counselors — as does, yearly, the presidency of the Confederation. But that topic is for another day.) In a recent interview , Schneider-Ammann states that it would be a grave danger to allow any further growth of the percentage of students graduating with the high-school degree, the “Maturity” or in common parlance Matura (equivalent to the German Abitur and the French Baccalauréat). What is this scary threshold? The graduation rate (France: 84.5%) has in Switzerland grown in the past years from 12% to a whopping 20%. This is where the minister wants to raise a red flag.
Not stopping there, he bitterly complains that immigrant families “want their children to get a Matura at any price”. These immigrant’s conceit has no bound! Can you fathom the insolence: they want to educate their kids!
Were such declarations to come from Mr. Schneider-Ammann’s French counterpart, the streets of Paris would fill up with pitchfork-brandishing youngsters. In the US, no one would even understand the part about immigrants: walk the halls of Berkeley or Stanford and it’s Asians everywhere, since childhood pushed to excellence by their “Chinese mothers”  or equivalent.
What is going on? Has Switzerland put in charge of its education the equivalent of (in the US) the would-be Republican candidate Rick Santorum, who infamously proclaimed that “President Obama wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!”.
Well, to a point, yes. But Schneider-Ammann, an ETH graduate in electrical engineering, is not an obscurantist and not driven by religious extremism. What he is talking about is the uniqueness of the Swiss educational system, which includes a separation of students at the age of 12 between those who will pursue the Matura, leading to open admission to almost any university program , and those channeled to technical tracks with reduced teaching hours and extensive on-the-job training. That system explains the 20% figure: it is not that the other 80% are left to rot; most of them receive a job-oriented qualification and a technical degree. Anyone who has tried to use the services of a plumber in the United States and in Switzerland understands the effect of this system on the quality of professional work (and its price).
Schneider-Ammann (along with, in my experience, most education professionals in Switzerland) has no qualms about defending that system. He says:
Every society is a kind of pyramid with, at the top, the most intellectual people and those with the most predisposition to education, and a wide base made of people with essentially manual skills. We have to include these in our education system as well. This is the only way to remain competitive and innovative and keep everyone, to all the extent possible, in the employment process.
In many circles such an unabated view would be howled down as elitist and paternalistic. The Swiss, however, have little interest in the kind of abstract arguments that are popular among French and German intellectuals. They are pragmatic and look at the results. Schneider-Ammann is not shy in pointing the fingers at other countries:
The more high-shool graduates a country has, the higher its unemployment rate. The relationship is obvious when one looks at the statistics. Highfalutin education plays its part in deindustrialisation. We can see it in Great Britain or France.
The views on immigrants are in the same spirit. Think not of mathematically brilliant Asian students forcefully entering computer science at MIT, but of children of families — for example, as Schneider-Ammann helpfully explains lest anyone fear ambiguity, “from Germany or France”— which “come to Switzerland and from the experience of their country of origin know hardly anything else than the academic road to education”. Ah, these German mothers who know “hardly anything else” than universities! These French fathers who do not wake up at night worrying whether their daughters will make it to tram driver!
These arguments will, one guesses, make for interesting conversations when he does become minister and gets to meet his foreign colleagues, but they are hard to ignore. What do the statistics actually say?
From OECD documents, e.g. , I do not completely understand the British picture (not much of a comment since there are few things I understand about Britain). In France, where reaching a 80% rate of success at the Baccalauréat was a decades-old political goal and a cause for national celebration when reached a few years ago, the unemployment is currently 9.5% and shows no sign of abating (that is an optimistic way of putting it). Significantly, high unemployment is not a fluke resulting from the current economic crisis but a persistent problem going back at least to the eighties and clearly resulting from structural causes. In Germany, for all its economic strength, the rate is hardly better, having oscillated between 9% and 11% between 2002 and 2007 and remaining around 7% in 2012.
In Switzerland: 3% today, and never above 4% since 2001. (In early 2001 it was around 1.6%!) As to the educational level of the population, the OECD notes  that Switzerland is a top-performing OECD country in reading literacy, maths and sciences with the average student scoring 517.
Correlation is not causation; politicians simplify complex matters, and one can think of a few counter-examples to Mr. Schneider-Ammann’s reasoning (I would like to get a better idea of the Finnish picture, and Korea also seems an interesting case). Still, that reasoning has to be taken seriously. Anyone familiar with the French situation, for example, can only wonder what good it is to give everyone the Bac and access to overcrowded university tracks of sociology, ethnography and psychology. How many ethnographers does a country need? Since the world is selective, selection occurs anyway, if after the Bac, and most notably in controlling access to the noblest part of the system — the top of Schneider-Ammann’s pyramid: the Grandes Écoles, which are unabashedly elitist. Families in the know understand that the competitive examinations to Polytechnique and the like, not the Bac, are the exams that count. This part of the system, the royal track, works very well; I had the immense privilege of benefiting from it and can testify to its efficiency. It is at least as exclusive as the Swiss Matura+University track. The problem is the rest of the system; those students who do not make it to the top are somehow herded to the Bac and the first years of ordinary universities without the appropriate support and infrastructure.
Thereby lies the difference: the Swiss have no patience for grand speeches about high education, the implicit promise that everyone can become Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir, and the harsh accompanying reality of a system that hides cruel disparities behind the appearance of universal access. Instead, they bluntly sort out at a tender age  the few intellectuals from the many practically-oriented students. The big difference with some other countries is that the latter category is neither duped nor dumped: neither duped into believing they can have an high-flying university education, nor dumped to mend for themselves. The technical and apprenticeship programs are are seriously organized, well-funded, and intended to lead to stable, respected professions.
So far the system has worked incredibly well; the durably low unemployment rate, in sharp contrast with neighboring countries, is only one sign of the country’s success. I do not know how much of the correlation is causation, and how much the Swiss experience is transposable to other countries.
As an intellectual, and someone who gained so much from education in peerless institutions, I do not feel in a good position to decree that others should just learn a trade. But I find the argument fascinating. The conventional wisdom today is that countries must educate, educate, educate. Usually this is understood as pushing ever more students towards academic tracks. There are a few dissenting voices; Paul Krugman, for example, has regularly warned that automation today threatens low-end intellectual jobs (he comes back to that theme in today’s New York Times ). I do not know the answer; but the questions are worth asking, without fear of breaking taboos.
References and notes
 «Ich hätte lieber etwas weniger, dafür bessere Maturanden» (I’d rather have somewhat fewer and hence better high-school graduates), interview of Johann Schneider-Ammann (in German), by René Donzé and Sarah Nowotny, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 28 October 2012, available here.
 Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Penguin Press, 2011, see summary here.
 Law and medicine have a numerus clausus. Students graduating with a Matura can otherwise enter the university and program of their choice.
 OECD Better Life index, here. Note that the OECD reports give Switzerland a high-school graduation rate of 90%, at the very top of countries surveyed, meaning that the rate does not distinguish between the various kinds of high-school certificates. High-school graduation rates as discussed in the present article refer to the standard academic tracks, which for Switzerland means the Matura not including professional tracks.
 Migration paths exist, for hard-working late bloomers who want to transition from the lower-tier system to the universities.
 Paul Krugman: Robots and Robber Barons, New York Times, 9 December 2012, available here.