Comparing the Top Universities in Switzerland: ETH Zurich or EPFL?

Comparing the Top Universities in Switzerland: ETH Zurich or EPFL?

Laura Bridgestock

Updated October 4, 2023 Updated October 04

ETH Zurich and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) are not just the two top universities in Switzerland – they’re also the top two universities in Europe, outside of the UK. 

Together comprising the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, these sister institutions are a close-matched pair. The QS World University Rankings® 2020 saw ETH Zurich rank sixth – above the UK’s University of Cambridge, and the only university in continental Europe to feature in the top 10. Meanwhile, EPFL climbed four places to rank joint 18th.

Within the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology Domain – which has a shared strategic management board and also includes several research institutes – both ETH Zurich and EPFL focus on research and teaching in the fields of engineering, natural sciences and related fields, offering degree courses from undergraduate through to PhD level.

So, how do these two top universities in Switzerland compare, and how can you decide which is the best choice for you? Here’s an at-a-glance comparison, followed by a more in-depth look at the similarities and differences.


ETH Zurich


QS World University Rankings® 2020

Ranked sixth in the world overall in 2020

Rated 22nd in the world by academics and 25th by employers

113th for faculty/student ratio

15th for research impact (citations per faculty member)

53rd for percentage of international students; 19th for percentage of international faculty members

Ranked joint 18th in the world overall in 2020

Rated 72nd in the world by academics and 82nd by employers

52nd for faculty/student ratio

12th for research impact (citations per faculty member)


13th for both percentage of international students and percentage of international faculty members

Subject strengths*

Third in the world for engineering & technology

Joint sixth for natural sciences

Joint 46th for life sciences & medicine

45th for social sciences & management

Joint 96th for arts & humanities

11th in the world for engineering & technology

13th for natural sciences

Joint 120th for life sciences & medicine

(Unranked for social sciences & management and arts & humanities.)


Two campuses in Switzerland’s largest city, Zurich

Lausanne, a city in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva


Student community

Around 21,397 students in total, of which about 9,517 are bachelor’s students, 6,590 are master’s students and 4,175 are doctoral students

Source: ETH Zurich in Figures

Around 11,134 students in total, of which about 5,671 are bachelor’s students, 3,055 are master’s students and 2,408 are doctoral students

Source: EPFL Facts and Figures

Tuition fees & living costs


Fees for all students are CHF 580 to CHF 730 per semester (~US$594-748).  Two semesters per year – plus a compulsory semester fee of CHF 69, meaning the total paid each year of study is CHF 1,298 to 1,598 (~US$1,330-1,635).

Recommended budget is around CHF 1,870

 (~US$1,914) per month for study and living costs

Fees for all students are CHF 630 (~US$645) per semester; which is CHF 1260 per year (~US$1,290)

Recommended budget is around CHF 2,056 (~US$2,104) per month for study and living costs


Scholarships & loans


Loans and grants available for existing students

Various scholarships open to international students at bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral level (see below)

Hardship grants available for existing students

Excellence Fellowships scheme is open to international master’s applicants (see below) 

* Based on the broad subject areas of the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2019.

ETH Zurich

QS World University Rankings® 2020

In the latest edition of the QS World University Rankings, Switzerland's top universities are two of the highest-ranked institutions outside of the US and UK, placing sixth and joint 18th.

ETH Zurich’s overall slight lead is largely due to the strength of its international reputation. In the large global surveys of academics and employers conducted by QS, the Zurich school is currently rated 22nd in the world by academics and 25th by employers. Its counterpart in Lausanne continues to lag a little behind, at 72nd in the world by academics and 82nd with employers but, as this shows, these flagship members of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology both boast exceptionally strong global reputations, both within academia and in the wider professional realm.

Significantly smaller in terms of its student intake, EPFL claims the stronger score for faculty/student ratio – a measure based on the number of full-time academic staff employed per student – which may suggest its students can expect more individual contact-time.

Both universities are neck-in-neck for research impact (based on research citations per faculty member), with EPFL in the lead by just three places.

They also both claim strong scores in the indicator assessing international diversity of faculty members, reflecting their success in attracting academics from across Europe and beyond. EPFL currently ranks 13th in the world on this measure, with ETH Zurich just six places behind.

The former is also the leader for the international diversity of its student community at 13th, while ETH Zurich is within the top 60 for this measure too. Clearly, both are extremely attractive choices for academics and students around the world, making them two of the most internationally diverse communities in which to study and pursue research.

Subject strengths 

The QS World University Rankings by Subject – which ranks universities in five broad subject areas and 48 subjects – reflects the focus on technical and scientific disciplines shared by both of Switzerland’s leading universities. ETH Zurich is in the top 100 for every broad subject area, while both institutions achieved their highest score for engineering and technology, with ETH Zurich ranked third and EPFL 11th.

ETH Zurich and EPFL in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2019


ETH Zurich


Accounting & finance



Agriculture & forestry






Biological sciences






Computer science



Earth & marine sciences






Engineering (chemical)



Engineering (civil)



Engineering (electrical)



Engineering (mechanical)



Environmental sciences









Materials science


















Social policy & administration



Sports-related subjects






See the full QS World University Rankings by Subject 2019



Zurich and Lausanne, where these two top universities in Switzerland are based, share many similarities. Both cities are on the shores of a lake (Lakes Zurich and Geneva) and both boast magnificent views of the Alps mountain range, offering opportunities for outdoor exploration along with a broad spectrum of cultural venues.

Both cities also have significant student populations, being home to several universities. Notably, ETH Zurich is joined by the University of Zurich (ranked 76th in the QS World University Rankings 2020) and EPFL by the University of Lausanne (153rd). As is generally true of Switzerland, both cities come with a relatively high cost of living, though this is offset by relatively low tuition fees.

The major difference is one of size and pace. Zurich is Switzerland’s largest city, home to the Swiss Stock Exchange, and known as one of the world’s most important financial and business hubs. Lausanne, the country’s fourth-largest city, can’t compete in terms of density of industry or entertainment – though it is the headquarters for a number of international companies and organizations, including the International Olympic Committee. But while Zurich may have more ‘buzz’, neither of these cities are likely to leave students short of things to see and do, either indoors or out.

Another thing to consider is language. Zurich is in the German-speaking area of Switzerland (though what you’ll hear on the streets is actually the local Swiss-German dialect). Meanwhile, Lausanne is in the French-speaking region, although again Swiss-French may differ slightly. So, if either of these languages is your first language, you may prefer one location over the other, with only a few minor language differences to adjust to.

Student community 

EPFL claims to be “Europe’s most cosmopolitan technical university” – and it has some foundation for this. In the QS World University Rankings 2020, it ranks 13th in the world for the international diversity of both its students and academic staff. ETH Zurich is also within the world’s top 20 for international diversity of staff, but a little further behind in terms of international student representation (53rd in the world).

While EPFL has a higher ratio of international students, ETH Zurich has a much larger student community overall – with around 21,397 students, it’s around twice the size of EPFL. As is to be expected of universities with a strong research focus, both have a high proportion of master’s and doctorate students. Postgraduate students account for almost half of the student community at each.

Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

Tuition fees and living costs 

Compared to other top study destinations, such as the US or UK, tuition fees at universities in Switzerland are relatively low – and this applies equally to domestic, EU and international students.

At ETH Zurich, current fees for all bachelor’s, master’s and diploma courses currently stand at CHF 580 per semester, and will soon rise to CHF 730 per semester.

There are two semesters per year, and students at ETH Zurich also need to pay a compulsory semester fee of CHF 69, meaning that your total fees per year will be CHF 1,298 to 1,598 (~US$1,330-1,635).

Students also pay a fee for examinations, of up to CHF 800 (~$818). At EPFL, the fees are very similar – CHF 630 (~US$645) per semester (including other fees) for bachelor’s and master’s students.

Doctoral students at both institutions are typically employed as research assistants, receiving a salary.  However, they are required to pay a one-off fee of CHF 1,200 (~US$1,228) when registering for the final doctoral examination.

While tuition fees may seem almost too low to be true, the cost of living in Switzerland is notoriously high. Both universities advise students to budget around CHF 1,900-2,050 (~US$1,944 – 2,097) per month to cover study and living costs – including university fees, accommodation, food, transport, health insurance, course supplies and personal items.

Scholarships and loans 

At ETH Zurich, bachelor’s students who have passed their first-year exams, and master’s and doctoral students who completed an undergraduate degree at the institution may be eligible to apply for an interest-free loan of up to CHF 12,000 (~US$12,270). Students still in their first semester can also apply for interest-free short-term loans of up to CHF 2,000 (~US$2,045).

The university offers scholarships which aim to cover some of the costs of study. Students can get an estimate of how much they may be eligible to receive using an online calculator.

In addition, the Solidarity Fund for Foreign Students in Zurich is available for international bachelor’s students who have completed their first semester. This provides up to CHF 750 (~US$767) per month, for up to 10 semesters. International master’s applicants with a very strong academic background can apply to the school’s highly competitive Excellence Scholarship and Master Scholarship programs. Recipients of these graduate scholarships do not have to pay tuition fees and receive a monthly stipend to help cover living costs.

Similarly, EPFL offers financial aid for existing students who have completed at least one year of their studies, via grants from the Fondation pour les Etudiants de l'EPFL. It also has an Excellence Fellowship scheme, for those applying to study a master’s degree, which is open to international students.

Further scholarships for graduate-level international students are offered by the Swiss government, via the Federal Commission for Scholarships for Foreign Students (FCS).


Which of these top universities in Switzerland gets your vote? Let us know in the comments below.

This article was originally published in September 2013. It was last updated in June 2019 to include the latest data from the QS World University Rankings and other sources.

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This article was originally published in June 2019 . It was last updated in October 2023

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The former editor of, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'


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