Talk im Turm

Discussing Educational Opportunities and Fair Taxation

At the latest Talk im Turm event, educational scientist Katharina Maag Merki and economist Florian Scheuer discussed equal opportunities in education and a tax system that provides performance incentives rather than merely redistributing wealth.

David Werner

Educational scientist Katharina Maag Merki and economist Florian Scheuer in discussion with UZH Magazin editors Thomas Gull and Roger Nickl.


Switzerland isn’t a socially mobile country. One of the reasons for this could be country’s relatively low educational mobility. Children from families with lower levels of education are far less likely to go to university than children from privileged backgrounds.

“The Swiss education system is full of hurdles that make it tough for children from less privileged families to get into the Gymnasium, even if they’re talented and capable,” said Katharina Maag Merki at the Talk im Turm. Maag Merki is professor of theoretical and empirical studies of educational processes in schools and researches the reasons behind unequal opportunities in the school system.

While Maag Merki acknowledged that in principle the Swiss education system was flexible and allowed people to get further qualifications later on, she added that it was mainly young people from privileged backgrounds that took advantage of this option.  In practice, educational mobility in Switzerland is far below what would be possible given the system.

Encourage rather than select

Education expert Maag Merki believes that the selection process that sets students on either an academic or a vocational path happens too early in Switzerland. To make it more of a level playing field, Maag Merki said that the Swiss school system needed fundamental reform. The focus of education policy should be placed more on learning processes and aims, suggested Katharina Maag Merki at the Talk im Turm. Instead of selection, schools ought to be concentrating more on encouraging students to achieve their potential. 

The right tax regime

Another matter of intense public debate is the question of the right tax system. Taxes are often considered the best instrument to balance the gap between the rich and poor. But taxes alone won’t be enough to make our world a fairer place, explained professor of economics Florian Scheuer on stage. The emphasis of our tax system was still far too much on redistribution. In economic terms, said Florian Scheuer, it made more sense to view taxation as a way of providing incentives for people to pursue productive activities.

Avoid putting off high performers

Which activities add value to an economy – and which ones don’t? And how must a tax system be designed so that it promotes productivity? These are the questions that Florian Scheuer investigates in his research. The economist was on stage making the case for taking a closer look at the ratio of earnings to productivity when it comes to the taxation of high earners. For example, CEOs who offer lucrative compensation agreements to fellow CEO board members contributed little to the prosperity of an economy. Instead of helping to increase overall economic wealth, these rent seekers only obtained economic gains for themselves. Scheuer said that high tax rates were an efficient remedy in such cases. In contrast, strong and capable managers who increase productivity with their businesses shouldn’t be put off by being forced to pay the highest possible tax rate – this only served to damage the economy.

David Werner, Head of Storytelling & Inhouse Media, UZH Communications. English translation by Philip Isler, UZH Communications.

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