History Current Page History

A look back at the institutional history

How it all started

“Seldom has such a school and educational institution begun with more simple means. They started out with no more than three tables, 19 chairs, a pencil and a piece of chalk.“ (First HPS Annual Report 1924/25, p.1)

The first annual course of the Zurich Training College for Teachers in Special Needs (HPS) was inaugurated on 8 April 1924 with a total of eight students and eight teachers. Heinrich Hanselmann was the College's first rector.

Four years previously, the inaugural meeting of the “Association for a Zurich Training College for Teachers in Special Needs” had taken place at the Strauhof restaurant in Zurich. One of the founding fathers of the association was Johannes Hepp (1879-1963), director of the cantonal institution for the blind and the deaf in Zurich Wollishofen. The association's goal was to set up an institution for the training in special needs educators to respond to the increasing demand for these professionals in the wake of the introduction of compulsory education in the 19th century. Since pupils with learning difficulties were not always able to keep up with their peers at regular schools, the need for the creation of special classes and schools became evident. The creation of these special institutions in turn led to the realisation that specific training was required for their teaching staff; in fact prior to the establishment of the HPS, the training in special needs educators was left to the initiative of the individual teachers. Johannes Hepp recorded the following comment in the minutes of a meeting held in 1922:

“The vast majority of teachers currently working in the field in special education have become acquainted with the particulars of their duties by means of self-study. Although their sense of duty and self-sacrifice may ease their task, they nevertheless remain aware of the inadequacies of their pervious training. (...) Self-study is both exacting and incomplete.“ (Johannes Hepp: 1st Record of HPS minutes, 23 April 1919 – 22 November 1922, pp.8/9) 

Following protracted and arduous negotiations on its direction, funding and whether or not it should be established as a department of the University of Zurich, the HPS was finally set up as educational institution outside the university. Closer links between the College and the University of Zurich were nevertheless forged in 1931 when the HPS rector Heinrich Hanselmann obtained an extraordinary professorship in Special Needs Education, the first chair of its kind in the whole of Europe.

Turbulent times

Heinrich Hanselmann served as the rector of the HPS and held the chair of the University of Zurich from 1923 to 1940. Following his retirement, he was succeeded in both functions by Paul Moor. Both rectors expanded the College by founding important institutions, e.g. the Albisbrunn rural education centre, as a venue for practical training, and an educational counselling centre. The development of the teacher training college was also influenced by external circumstances. Annual courses had to be cancelled on account of the precarious economic situation during the Second World War. Moreover the College was not immune to the restrictive spirit of the times, in particular with respect to eugenics.

Further development of the HPS

Fritz Schneeberger succeeded Paul Moor as the next rector of the HPS in 1961. Unlike his predecessors, he did not hold a professorship: This put an end to the tradition of the head of the HPS simultaneously holding the chair in Special Needs Education at the University of Zurich. Whilst this gave the College a certain degree of institutional autonomy, it nevertheless meant that it forfeited important contacts to the university. One of Schneeberger's main achievements was the restructuring of the College. In 1972 the syllabus was divided into a basic course of study and specialised training programmes also leading to special needs occupations outside the field of education, e.g. psychomotor therapy and speech therapy. Further measures in this period included the establishment of the “General further training“ department and the introduction of the “Special course for early childhood educators“ in 1981.

The HPS's approach developed away from a focus on special needs in an educational setting towards a broader understanding of special education as a whole. While for many years its courses were chiefly delivered in the form of evening classes and short-term programmes, the main thrust of its activities now became to deliver multi-annual study programmes leading to vocational qualifications.

HPS to the University of Applied Sciences in Special Needs Education (HfH)

In 2001, the Zurich Training College for Teachers in Special Needs (HPS) became the University of Applied Sciences in Special Needs Education (HfH). In the same year it moved from its previous premises, the Turnegg building in Kantonsschulstrasse and various other rented premises throughout the city, to its new home, City Bernina in Schaffhauserstrasse. This finally united all its activities under one roof.

“On 6 September 2001, the 76-year-old Zurich Training College for Teachers in Special Needs becomes the University of Applied Sciences in Special Needs Education at its new home, City Bernina. While the institution was previously sponsored by four cantons, the HfH is now sponsored by 13 Swiss cantons as well as the Principality of Liechtenstein. As the largest educational institution of its kind, the HfH is tasked with providing more than one half of the German-speaking population of Switzerland with special education professionals “

(Press release issued by the President of the Board of Governors, Dr. A. Strässle, on the occasion of the opening ceremony of the University of Applied Sciences in Special Needs Education (HfH).

In the following years, the new HfH in particular adapted its study programmes to bring them into line with the Bologna process. The HfH's Bachelor and Master programmes were accredited by the Swiss Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education in 2005/2006. By 2008, the HfH had one thousand matriculated students.

The autonomous university of applied sciences has set itself the aim of becoming an inter-regional centre of excellence for special education. This is reflected in its mission statement:

“By means of our teaching, research and development activities and the services we deliver, we seek to make a contribution towards a better quality of life for people with special needs and living together with people with special needs”. HfH mission statement 2007, p.2)

Back to the roots...

Heinrich Hanselmann's described his vision of the Zurich Training College for Teachers in Special Needs in a brochure published in 1926. Little did he know that much of this vision would become reality almost 82 years later ...

„ (...) the goal of the Training College for Teachers in Special Needs is to gradually develop into an intellectual centre of learning, education and care for the handicapped as a whole. This objective is to be achieved inter alia by means of periodical organisation of short-term further training courses for the heads, teachers and auxiliary staff of relevant institutions, lawyers, doctors and clergymen working in this field, and, furthermore, by the creation of a Swiss information office, a lending service for literature relating to special needs education and the promotion of scientific research in this specialised field(...,) etc. “


Founded in 1924 as the Zurich Training College for Teachers in Special Needs; transformed into the University of Applied Sciences in Special Needs Education in 2001
Rector Prof. Dr. Barbara Fäh
Employees 170
Sponsored by 13 Swiss cantons and the Principality of Liechtenstein
President of the Board of Governors Prof. Dr. Dorothea Christ, Director of the Office of Universities of the Canton of Zurich
Programmes Bachelor's and Master's programmes, Certificate/Master of Advanced Studies (CAS/MAS), continuing education, research and development and services
Site Map Contacts and Site Plan


Tel: +41 44 317 11 11