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

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

By Laura Bridgestock

Updated October 14, 2023 Updated October 14, 2023


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

Together these two institutions comprise the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology. The newly released QS World University Rankings® 2021 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 14th this year.

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® 2021

Ranked sixth in the world overall in 2021

Rated 19th in the world by academics and 26th by employers

140th for faculty/student ratio

16th for research impact (citations per faculty member)

59th for percentage of international students; 19th for percentage of international faculty members

Ranked 14th in the world overall in 2021

Rated 67th in the world by academics and 76th by employers

61st for faculty/student ratio

12th for research impact (citations per faculty member)

12th for percentage of international students; 15th for percentage of international faculty members

Subject strengths, based on the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2020

Ranked among the world’s best for 27 subjects; in the top 10 for 15 of these.

First in the world for earth and marine science.

Joint second for statistics and operational research.

Fourth in the world for engineering and technology, and architecture and forestry.

Fifth in the world for environmental sciences.

Ranked among the world’s best for 16 subjects; in the top 10 for seven of these.

 Joint seventh in the world for materials science.

Eighth in the world for computer science, civil and structural engineering, joint eighth for chemical engineering.

Ninth in the world for electrical engineering and joint ninth for chemistry.


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 22,193 students in total, of which about 9,895 are bachelor’s students, 7037 are master’s students and 4,168 are doctoral students

Source: ETH Zurich in Figures

Around 11,449 students in total, of which about 5,839 are bachelor’s students, 3,331 are master’s students and 2,128 are doctoral students

Source: EPFL Facts and Figures

Tuition fees & living costs


Fees for all students are CHF 730 per semester (~US$760). Two semesters per year – plus a compulsory semester fee of CHF 69, meaning the total paid each year of study is CHF 1,598 (~US$1670).

Recommended budget is around CHF 1,870 (~US$1950) per month for study and living costs

Fees for all students are CHF 710 (~US$740) per semester; which is CHF 1420 per year (~US$1,480)

Recommended budget is around CHF 2,056 (~US$2,150) 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) 

ETH Zurich

QS World University Rankings® 2021

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 14th.

ETH Zurich’s 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 19th in the world by academics and 26th by employers. Its counterpart in Lausanne continues to lag a little behind, at 67th in the world by academics and 76th with employers. However, both of these flagship members of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology 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 and neck for research impact (based on research citations per faculty member). Both rank in the top 20, with EPFL in the lead by just four places in 12th place worldwide.

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 16th in the world for its international faculty score, with ETH Zurich placing 19th.

EPFL is the leader for the international diversity of its student community at 12th, while ETH ranks 59th for this measure. However, both universities 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.

ETH Zurich’s president, Joël Mesot said: “Openness is our key to success. Particularly at the master’s and doctoral levels, we attract and educate students from around the world.

“This divergence of cultures enables our students and professors to examine problems from diverse perspectives and to develop sustainable solutions.”

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.

In this year’s ranking, ETH Zurich features 27 different subjects, ranking within the top 20 for 18 of these. EPFL offers 17 subjects, with 11 of these in the world top 20.

See how the two universities compare across the different subject areas below.

ETH Zurich and EPFL in the QS World University Rankings by Subject 2020


ETH Zurich


Accounting & finance



Agriculture & forestry






Biological sciences






Computer science



Earth & marine sciences






Engineering (chemical)



Engineering (civil)



Engineering (electrical)



Engineering (mechanical)



Engineering & technology



Environmental sciences






Life Sciences & medicine






Materials science



Natural Sciences












Social policy & administration



Social Sciences & management



Sports-related subjects






See the full QS World University Rankings by Subject 2020



ETH Zurich and EPFL are based in Zurich and Lausanne respectively, and the two locations 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 69th in the QS World University Rankings 2021) and EPFL by the University of Lausanne (joint 169th). 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. However, neither of these cities are likely to leave students short of things to see and do, either indoors or out.

Mesot said: “Swizerland and ETH Zurich are located in the heart of Europe’ and Zurich often ranks highly for quality of life. The city boasts a wealth of historical buildings, beautifully situated in proximity to a lake and the Swiss Alps. The campus locations benefit from both historical tradition and modern lab facilities”.

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 2021, it ranks 12th in the world for the international diversity of its students and 15th for the international diversity of its 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 (59th in the world).

While EPFL has a higher ratio of international students, ETH Zurich has a much larger student community overall – with around 22,193 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 for domestic, EU and international students.

At ETH Zurich, current fees for all bachelor’s, master’s and diploma courses currently stand at CHF 730 per semester (~US$760).

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 1,598 (~US$1670).

Students also pay a fee for examinations, of up to CHF 800 (~US$840). At EPFL, the fees are very similar – CHF 710 (~US$740) 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 1,500 (~US$1,580) when registering for the final doctoral examination.

While tuition fees are low, the cost of living in Switzerland is notoriously high. Both universities advise students to budget around CHF 1,870-2,056 (~US$1,950 – 2,150) 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$12,650). Students still in their first semester can also apply for interest-free short-term loans of up to CHF 5,000 (~US$5,270).

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$790) 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 2020 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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