How much division of labor for Swiss political science?

Over at the University Blog, Ferdinand von Prondzynski, President of Dublin City University between 2000 and 2010, writes:

One crucial issue facing Irish higher education over the next while will be institutional diversity. Broadly the question goes like this: we are a small country, so why do we need seven universities that cover more or less the same territory, and a dozen or so institutes with the same mission, and some other colleges? Why not identify a specialism for each and then ensure they are the best they could be in that area? Or maybe, why not identify one or two all-rounder institutions, with everyone else occupying a niche?

These questions are highly relevant for the Swiss political science landscape.

There are nine institutions that can be described as political science departments in Switzerland, all of small size in international comparison. The largest department is at the University of Lausanne (11 professors and 10 lecturers) and the smallest at the University of Lucerne (2 professors and 3 lecturers). As a comparison, good American departments that are considered relatively small have 31 (Washington University in St. Louis) and 34 (Rochester) faculty members, while powerhouses like Harvard and Princeton count 48 and 60 professors, respectively. In Europe, the Department of Government of the LSE has an academic staff of 48, while that of the University of Essex has 40.

Under these conditions, does it make sense that each department in Switzerland tries to cover all political science perspectives, or should they aim to occupy a given niche? De facto, some specialization is unavoidable because with a faculty of 10 or 15, it is just not possible that all subdisciplines and theoretical and methodological orientations are covered in depth. But embracing specialization as a strategy to raise the profile of a department, in terms of research output and the capacity to attract (graduate) students, is another matter entirely.

I tend to think that more specialization would be a good idea. The most obvious drawback is that it could lead to an impoverished education for students, who would be exposed to a narrower range of perspectives. However, I believe that it is possible to ensure an appropriate level of diversity at the BA level. As long as students are exposed to a significant part of the discipline in the first year(s), I think that the disadvantages of specialization at the BA level could be limited. At the MA and PhD level, I see only advantages: students would receive a more coherent and effective education in an approach or subfield that they have chosen. From the perspective of the department, specialization helps increase visibility and thus attract students. Finally, specialization is certainly beneficial for research, because a certain critical mass can be reached even with a faculty of limited size.

One thought on “How much division of labor for Swiss political science?

  1. I would like to add that even a “broad” orientation of political science departments will not ensure diversity at the BA level. While mandatory courses at the University of Zurich cover the most important subfields of political science (methods,, comparatice politics, IR, pol. phil.) as well as swiss politics (since we are in Switzerland), optional courses (“Wahlmodule”) do not. There is an obvious shortage of political philosophy and especially foreign policy, security issues. On the other hand issues focussing on switzerland and environmental questions are available en masse every semester. So in my opinion a narrower focus of the different departments wont make things worse for BA students since mandatary courses only cover basic knowledge and it might actually give students interested in other issues (e.g. security issues, american politics, EU) the opportunity to attend those departments that cover them.

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