Origins & development phases

The Swiss Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts (SUP) - Fachhochschule, Haute école specialisée - have university status, oriented towards professional training and applied research.

Founded under federal law, SUPSI is an autonomous organisation which was established by Canton Ticino 11th March 1997, and which has integrated preexisting specialised schools along with public and private research institutes. The origins of the oldest of these date back to architecture courses started in 1852 under the initiative of Carlo Cattaneo.

Before SUPSI foundation

Driven by the enterprising spirit of Stefano Franscini, the first teaching methodology courses are conducted in Bellinzona, under the supervision of Luigi A. Parravicini from Como (Austrian Lombardy), who is appointed Director of Studies.

The methodology courses are conducted on a regular basis.

Implementing the proposal put forward by Carlo Cattaneo, Canton Ticino opens the Cantonal High School, offering higher education courses in mechanics and architecture.

The higher education courses in mechanics and architecture are discontinued, following the inauguration of the Federal Polytechnic of Zurich.

A number of vocational schools offering higher education courses mainly in the technical sector are started up by both the Canton and by private individuals, with varying degrees of success.

A new law is imposed on the Ticino school system, providing it with a clear structure.

Establishment of the Cantonal Teacher Training Institute (Scuola normale cantonale), based in Pollegio.


The Teacher Training Institute for men is transferred to Locarno, to the former convent of San Francesco (now the main DFA campus).

The Teacher Training Institute for women is also transferred to Locarno, to Villa Belvedere (where the Commercial Vocational Centre - Centro professionale commerciale is now based).

The new Cantonal inspector of nursery schools, Teresa Bontempi, conducts her nursery school teacher-training course for the first time. Over the following twenty-five years, these Montessori-style courses play a significant role in the pedagogical modernisation process in Canton Ticino.

Two new laws are issued: one on primary school education, and a cantonal law on vocational training, which, for the first time, also regulates vocational teacher training programmes.

The Cantonal School of Master Builders opens in Lugano, earning a strong reputation based on soundness and continuity with the establishments referred to above.

The School of Master Builders becomes a Higher Technical College (STS).

With the new school law, all teacher-training programmes (pre-primary school teachers, home economics teachers, primary and secondary school teachers) are located at the Locarno School of Education (Scuola magistrale di Locarno).


The STS awards the first architecture and civil engineering diplomas recognised by the Confederation.

The student occupation of Room 20 in the School of Education causes a great stir. They are protesting against the authoritarian management style adopted by the institute, and against a pedagogical approach considered as underdeveloped and hardly suited in terms of the professional tools provided. Over the following years, a series of investigation committees highlight the conditions of pedagogical backwardness and overcrowding in schools, and propose an in-depth reform.

The range of educational options is completed by the inauguration of the Lugano School of Education.

As a result of private initiative, the Dimitri Theatre School opens in Verscio.

As a third level cycle at the Educational Centre for Artistic Industry (CSIA), Canton Ticino opens the College of Applied Arts (SSAA) in Lugano.
As a result of private initiative, the Music Academy, which will later become the Conservatory of Southern Switzerland, opens in Lugano.

The STS expands its range of courses, and now also trains computer scientists and electronic engineers.
The School of Education becomes a two-year, post-High School institution.

As a third level cycle following on from the commercial schools, Canton Ticino founds the College for Financial and Administrative Managers (SSQEA).

As a result of private initiative, the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence Research (IDSIA) is opened in Lugano.

Thim van der Laan International School of Physiotherapy was established in Landquart.

As a result of private-public initiative, the Institute of Computer Integrated Manufacturing of Southern Switzerland (ICIMSI) is opened in Manno, with the objective of conducting applied research in support of industry.

The establishment of the STS Electronic Engineering Section, based in Manno, in the building formerly occupied by the CSCS. The Computer Science Section moves from Trevano to Manno.

The Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts (SUP) are specified on the model of the German Fachhochschulen by means of a special new Federal Law, which stipulates the conditions under which organisations conducting third level education and applied research activities (to be integrated regionally in special institutions of a suitable size and offering programmes in various fields of study) can be recognised as SUP institutions.
The training and licencing of middle school and upper middle school teachers is delegated to an Institute for Teacher Licencing and Continuing Education (Istituto per le abilitazioni e l’aggiornamento dei docenti - IAA) based in Locarno, and managed by the Director of the School of Education.

Canton Ticino lays the legislative foundations for both the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI), Federal law, and for the University of Southern Switzerland (USI), Cantonal law, stipulating close cooperation between the two institutions.

SUPSI: from 1997 to present

On 11th March 1997 the Ticino Grand Council announces the establishment of SUPSI, with legal charter of autonomous organisation governed by public law. In accordance with Federal Law, SUPSI is mandated to impart vocational-type education, and to conduct its activities in four areas: Bachelor programmes, Continuing Education, Applied Research and Services to the Territory.

SUPSI was formed by an amalgamation of vocational schools and research institutes already operating in the territory: Higher Technical College (STS), College of Applied Arts (SSAA), College for Financial and Administrative Managers (SSQEA), Institute of Computer Integrated Manufacturing of Southern Switzerland (ICIMSI), Cantonal Experimental Technical Institution, Cantonal Office of Geology and Hydrology. Teaching and research activities could therefore begin just a few months later.

In its first year, SUPSI welcomes 224 students to its Bachelor programmes and 1,247 to its continuing education programmes, while the research sector records 73 projects in course. A very positive result, in a situation marked by difficulties associated with the transition process, made possible by the 177 collaborators spread out over the various locations, and by the invaluable support provided by Canton Ticino, the Vocational Education Division in particular.

Right from the early years of the newly-constituted SUPSI, the continuing education mandate is significantly effective in terms of programmes and attendance. 70 courses and more than 1,000 attendees in 1988. While the commitment and expertise of SUPSI staff are fundamental to achieving this outcome, the success is also based on the fact that the pre-SUPSI institutes had already matured extensive experience in the continuing education field.

In the same year the process of merging pre-existing specialist schools is completed with the integration of the College of Social Work, recently established by Canton Ticino, creating the fifth SUPSI Department: the Department of Social Work (DLS). The degree course in Social Education therefore joins the programmes in Visual Communication, Interior Architecture, Architectural Decoration, Civil Engineering, Architecture, Business Administration, Computer Science and Electronic Engineering.

In terms of organisation, the most important event in 1999 is the integration of the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence Research (IDSIA), internationally prominent for its research work in the field of cognitive sciences associated with learning and optimisation by means of heuristic methods. IDSIA becomes a jointly-run SUPSI-USI institute, enriching the Ticino and Swiss university system with a structure of great scientific value.
The Grand Council puts into effect the ASP Law (Alta scuola pedagogica – Teacher Training College), with the aim of raising teacher training courses to university level, in programmes conducted by a specific university institute (Pädagogische Hochschule).

In 2000 the first SUPSI degrees are awarded in Architecture, Civil Engineering, Computer Science, Electronic Engineering, Interior Architecture, Visual Communication, Conservation and Restoration, Business Administration and Social Work: an important step in the Bachelor programme consolidation process.

The Teacher Training College (ASP) is fully operational, incorporating the activities conducted by the School of Education, IAA and the Locarno Cantonal Didactic Centre. The new institute conducts Bachelor programmes for primary and pre-primary school teachers, Master programmes for lower middle and upper middle school teachers, and continuing education programmes for teachers working in all schools and at all levels. A research sector is also established, in collaboration with the Study and Research Office of the Department of Education.

Following two Confederation assessment procedures concluded in 2003, SUPSI and its degree courses are awarded definitive Federal recognition, on equal terms with the other six universities of applied sciences and arts in Switzerland.

Internally, an organisational restructuring process decided by the University Board is conducted in 2003: the five departments are reduced in number to three (Environment, construction and design, Business and Social Sciences, Innovative Technologies), including the previously autonomous research institutes, while the General Management and Extended Management structures are replaced by the SUPSI Executive, formed by the three Departmental Directors and by the Director General of the University.

In 2004 SUPSI is affiliated with the Fernfachhochschule Schweiz (FFHS) based in Brig, and with training centres in Zurich, Basle and Berne; this collaboration agreement proves immediately very auspicious and productive, both because the area of operation now extends beyond the original Cantonal competence boundaries of SUPSI, and also due to the impetus resulting from the didactic utilisation of distance-learning technologies.

An important organisational development in 2006 consists of the affiliation of the Dimitri Theatre School and of the Conservatory of Southern Switzerland, and the establishment of a new department for health care programmes, the Department of Health Sciences. This Department, which replaces the cantonal schools offering similar programmes, is part of SUPSI like the other departments, while the two affiliate schools maintain their specific titles and individual administrative management structures in a context that is integrated in terms of university aspects.

On 21 March 2006 the Grand Council approves the SUPSI affiliation of the Dimitri Theatre School and of the Music University of the Conservatory of Southern Switzerland.
The affiliation formula perfectly contributes to ensuring a balance between integration where appropriate and autonomy where necessary, providing these artistic institutes with the flexibility they require in order to operate within a legislative framework originally designed for schools conducting programmes of a different type.

On 16 September 2006, on the other hand, the newly-constituted Department of Health Sciences is launched, offering three degree courses – physiotherapy, occupational therapy and nursing care – together with continuing education and specialist programmes in the healthcare sector, and, right from the start, demonstrating a strong inter-professional approach.

In this same year, the Energy, Ecology, Economics Laboratory (LEEE) is promoted to the level of Institute, with the new name of Institute for Applied Sustainability to the Built Environment (ISAAC).
This promotion is the first of its type, and is implemented in accordance with SUPSI statutes. 

In 2007 the Akademie Physiotherapie Thim van der Laan in Landquart – which had trained physiotherapists for many years, awarding Swiss Red Cross qualifications and Bachelor/Master degrees governed by Dutch law – is affiliated with SUPSI, making it possible to conduct SUPSI Bachelor programmes in physiotherapy in the two centres: Manno and Chur. Grisons was interested in saving a prestigious educational centre otherwise destined to award foreign qualifications only, and this objective combined neatly with Ticino being interested in broadening its horizons. Another factor supporting the affiliation was that it would provide precious opportunities for students to complete their professional practice modules in another linguistic region.

The Institute of Information Systems and Networking (ISIN) is formally established in this same year, developing from the “Software Engineering and Information Systems” subject area, which in turn was the result of the aggregation of various areas of expertise in the Information and Communication Technology field, until now disseminated inside the Department of Innovative Technologies.

Also in 2007, The Institute for Systems and Applied Electronics (ISEA) assumes its current form, reprising the research activities conducted by three existing laboratories, essentially based on the conception and development of products with comprehensive software and hardware systems combining mechatronics, microelectronics and telecommunications.

In 2008, 8,000 students from the Universities of Applied Sciences and Arts complete the first programmes organised following the Bologna reform. The majority of graduates holding Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts degrees can enter the labour market directly. On the other hand, those who desire to do so can continue their studies and attain a Master’s degree.

This is the case for SUPSI, where for the first time Bachelor degrees are awarded in eighteen different courses, and where the first Master programmes are launched.

The most significant event in 2009 is the integration of the Locarno School of Pedagogy (ASP) into SUPSI, therefore fulfilling the need to elevate teacher training programmes to university level. A research in education programme is also required, in order to support and guide the qualitative development process of the educational system. 
The creation of a fifth SUPSI Department, the Department of Education and Learning (DFA), meets these new needs, while also following a trend observed both in Switzerland and abroad.

SUPSI research activities grow exponentially between 2008 and 2011, achieving significant results in terms of new project acquisition, and also as regards quantitative and qualitative aspects. The increase in research funding – from 15 to 24 million francs – was partially due to external financing, particularly from the Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI), and for European projects. Anchored by its local territory mandate, SUPSI therefore succeeds in achieving prominence as the most successful Swiss University of Applied Sciences and Arts in terms of participation in international research projects.

On 23 March 2010 the Council of State approves the new SUPSI logistical strategy envisaging the creation of three new university campuses in the Canton; a vitally important step for the future of the University and for the entire Ticino university system. This strategy, divulged to numerous local stakeholders, specifies the creation of a Campus spread throughout Ticino-City, with centres in Locarno, Verscio, Lugano and Mendrisio. The three new campuses share the fundamental principles of desirability, accessibility, long-term development potential, energetic and financial sustainability, social integration and collaboration with the University of Lugano (Università della Svizzera italiana - USI).

In 2013 some of the activities conducted by the CIM Institute for Sustainability in Innovation (ICIMSI) lead to the creation of the Institute of Systems and Technologies for Sustainable Production (ISTePS), a new institute at the Department of Innovative Technologies. ISTePS is created for two reasons: to satisfy the Canton’s need to establish itself as an important player in the European and international technological innovation field; and in order to benefit from another applied research institute that contributes to the competitiveness and sustainability of the industrial production system. The new Institute operates in the fields of applied research, development and technological transfer aimed at strategic innovation in businesses.

5 December 2013 is instead an important day for SUPSI graduates: the launch of the SUPSI Alumni Association, bringing together graduates from all the various University programmes. The Association aims to foster and develop the creation of a professional, personal and university contact network for graduates, and also to strengthen the ties between the University and the local territory, between the institution and its graduates, between graduates and current students.

From 1 October 2014 the Department of Health Sciences (DSAN) and the Department of Business and Social Sciences (DSAS) are merged into one single Department: the new Department of Business Economics, Health and Social Care (DEASS). The objective is to reinforce the profiles related to the three areas of expertise (business economics, health and social care), while also further promoting interdisciplinary collaboration agreements in contexts of fundamental importance to society in the coming years.

Also in 2014, the Cantonal Laboratory of Applied Microbiology is officially integrated into SUPSI. This integration, decided by the Grand Council, aims to concentrate Ticino activities in the microbiology and applied biology sector, exploiting the numerous potential synergies with other areas of expertise found in SUPSI.

The administration services restructuring process is completed in 2015, consolidating the structure of the Shared Central Services (SCC), located in the SUPSI Executive offices. 
This process consisted of reorganising and redirecting the activities supporting the four SUPSI institutional mandates in order to ensure continuous improvements to the services provided, by creating specialised and highly-qualified areas of expertise for managing the SUPSI administrative services.

Over the years, the CIM Institute for Sustainability in Innovation (ICIMSI) has integrated new expertise, meeting the research requirements of local businesses. As a result of these developments, a new name is required, and in 2016 it becomes the Institute for Mechanical Engineering and Materials Technology (MEMTi), a more precise representation of the Institute’s current situation.

2016 is also when the first steps are taken to set up the first SUPSI Students Association. As well as bringing together the students of the various Departments and Affiliated Schools, the Association aims to support students during their study programmes by organising a range of extra-curricular activities, and to help them engage as best they can with the challenges arising from the changes to the labour market. It also collaborates with the University Executive on issues related to the development of the institution, with the SUPSI Alumni Association and with the student associations of other cantonal and federal universities.

Along with its educational and applied research activities, SUPSI fulfills its institutional mandate by placing its multidisciplinary expertise at the disposal of the local economy, collaborating with both small and medium-sized companies in Southern Switzerland, with bodies, institutions and associations in the various sectors of the economy and society. The role supporting the Cantonal Administration in various specialist areas is particularly significant. On-site and in-laboratory analytical testing, specialist consulting services or evaluations and surveys, data monitoring and management, making available diagnostic instruments not found in the territory: these are only a few examples of the numerous specialist services provided by SUPSI Departments.

In 2018 the number of Master's courses delivered by SUPSI rised at 14, with the first edition of the Master's degree in Nursing.

In 2019 a new Bachelor programme in Leisure management was established. This Bachelor aims to develop managerial expertise tuned to the industry and services sector associated with free time (tourism, sports, culture, events, entertainment).