The development of vocational education and training in Geneva and Basel-Stadt from the 1950s to the 1980s. How cantonal education policies were influenced by the availability of a non-local workforce

 Scientific team working in the laboratory
The present thesis project involves research and analysis of historical documentation for the purpose of drawing a correlation between two key economic and social policy themes affecting Switzerland's development in the 1970s: firstly, vocational education and training, and secondly, the availability of a labour pool of non-local workers.

These two themes will be approached not from a sociological or economic angle, but rather from a public education policy one. Unlike other studies (Piguet 2002, 2005; Engelage 2009; Eigenmann 2017), which focussed on the assimilation of foreign migrants within the education system, on equal opportunities, on the recognition of qualitifcations, or on how foreign migrants use the education system, this study will examine how cantonal education policies were influenced by the availability of a labour pool of non-local workers. For the purposes of this study, a non-local labour pool is defined as all individuals who are available for work in a given Canton but who have not undergone education and training within that Canton (i.e. foreign nationals from countries neighbouring Switzerland who hold a cross-border work permit; Swiss nationals residing in other Cantons). Companies domiciled in that Canton are able to hire workers from the non-local labour pool, and this can correct certain market effects.

The period chosen (1950-1980) is intended to be representative of the mass phenomena that reshaped the Swiss economic and educational landscape: the economic boom of the ‘three glorious decades’, technological progress, expansion of education and training options, democratisation of studies, universal lower and upper-secondary education, etc. The two Swiss states chosen for this comparison, namely the Canton of Geneva and the half-Canton of Basel-Stadt, share common geographical and economic features as well as a high proportion of non-local workers. Comparing these two Swiss states will enable assessment of how the availability of a non-local labour pool influences vocational education and training policies in French-speaking and German-speaking cantons. As reported in similar studies of Swiss vocational education and training conducted by Imdorf, Berner & Gonon (2016) or Berner & Bonoli (2018). The comparison of two Swiss states that are culturally different but nevertheless have similar characteristics (e.g. a high proportion of holders of university entrance qualifications, a low rate of direct transitions from lower-secondary education to upper-secondary VET programmes) makes new observations possible.

The first part of this thesis describes the VET situation in Geneva and Basel in these prosperous years. It was during this period that major reforms took place at both lower-secondary and upper-secondary level (democratisation of studies, scope of general education, streaming, blended learning, etc.).

The second part will introduce the problem of workforce shortages and the purposes attributed to vocational education and training. More specifically, this part will look at the influence of the availability of a non-local labour pool, in particular on the willingness of companies to train apprentices and, consequently, the development of cantonal education policies. In a period of federal restrictions on foreign labour (from 1964), Geneva and Basel-Stadt were able to count on the important contribution of non-local workers to occupy certain economic sectors neglected by local workers (construction, metallurgy, hotel industry).

In the third part, we will provide a general reconstruction of the situation between 1950-1980 along with the data, the stakes and the observed differences between the two Swiss states. We will then analyse the discourse of the time (Landwehr / Keller) to try to understand what arguments may have emerged to justify the adoption of such or such a measure in the two Swiss states. This discourse analysis will be based on various official documents (laws, bills, commission reports, reports drafted by the Council of State of Geneva, reports drafted by the Executive Council of Basel-Stadt, reports drafted by the education office, press articles). In addition, this analysis draws inspiration from France’s Economics of Convention (Boltanski & Thévenot 1991) to better pinpoint the interactions between the positions of the various actors responsible for cantonal policies.

Finally, bridging the gap between this historical perspective and the current outlook, the discussion will also focus on non-local apprentices and managers, who today are the focus of some debates on competition and entrepreneurial understanding of the Swiss VET system.

Thesis supervisors:

  • Discourse analysis
  • Economics of Convention
In progress
1.10.2018 to 30.9.2021
Project manager: 
Fonds National Suisse (FNS)