Primary education is free, and adult illiteracy is virtually nonexistent. Education at all levels is first and foremost the responsibility of the cantons. Thus, Switzerland has 26 different systems based on differing education laws and varied cultural and linguistic needs. The cantons decide on the types of schools, length of study, teaching materials, and teachers' salaries. Education is compulsory in most cantons for nine years, and in a few for eight. An optional 10th year has been introduced in several cantons. Church schools in some cantons are tax supported. After primary school, students complete the compulsory portion of their education in various types of secondary Grade I schools, which emphasize vocational or academic subjects to varying degrees. Secondary Grade II schools, which are not compulsory, include trade and vocational preparatory schools and gymnasiums, which prepare students for the university and lead to the matura, or higher school-leaving certificate. As of 1999, public expenditure on education was estimated at 5.5% of GDP.
Switzerland has eight cantonal universities, including four in French-speaking areas and four in German-speaking ones. The universities' expenditures are largely financed by the cantons, with a 53% contribution from the Confederation. Approximately one-third of all higher-level educational funding goes to research and development. The largest universities are those of Zürich, Geneva, and Basel; others include those of Lausanne, Bern, Fribourg, and Neuchâtel. The Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich, the Economics College at St. Gallen, and the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne are also important.
Switzerland has a large number of private schools attracting primarily foreign students. These schools, most of them located in the French-speaking cantons, are known for their high-quality education, of either the academic or "finishing school" variety.
In 1996, 477,643 students were enrolled in primary schools. In the same year, 559,924 students were enrolled in secondary schools, and 148,024 students attended tertiary institutions. The pupil-teacher ratio at the primary level was 14 to 1 in 1999. In the same year, 99% of primary-school-age children were enrolled in school, while 88% of those eligible attended secondary school.