Why small is beautiful in higher education

École Polytechnique’s modest size has helped it develop a focused and coherent strategy, says Mathieu Le Traon

January 25, 2016
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Have you ever been lucky enough to spend some time in Japan? Among my most memorable travel moments is my stay at a high-end mountain ryokan (a Japanese traditional inn) near Kyoto.

The inn’s personalised and refined service gave attention to the smallest detail. With its delicate kaiseki cuisine and the unique atmosphere of the gardens and hot springs, the ryokan gives visitors access to the quintessence of the Japanese art de vivre.

With its 3,000 students and 22 laboratories, I often like to compare the situation of École Polytechnique (also known as l’X), in a world of universities 10 to 30 times its size, to that of such boutique hotels in a world of large, upscale, luxury hotels. A 300-bedroom hotel will seldom leave you with the same feeling of having experienced a unique moment in an exceptional place that you might expect from a luxury boutique hotel with only 15 rooms.

Read more: Why I chose to study at a small university

That is what École Polytechnique is about. As the leading graduate science and technology institute in France, combining top-level research, academics and innovation, our “boutique university” has been offering a unique experience to its students since 1794. Those who enter l’X, through one of France’s most competitive admission processes, benefit from a high-level, demanding, multidisciplinary curriculum that combines science, humanities, management and sports and that cares to develop their sense of ethics and esprit de corps.

Students have access to an international faculty body with an exceptional student to professor ratio of about four to one, a stimulating work (and party!) environment, and the possibility of dedicated services such as individual academic and personal coaching.

L’X offers its international students a four-month immersive language programme in which students are hosted by French families before the start of the courses and paired with an Alumni “godmother” or “godfather”, who offers guidance through the French culture and counselling for their career choices.

Student blog: Does size matter?

Now, if small is beautiful for students and for faculty, how beautiful is it for a vice-president for international relations?

While being small could be seen as an impediment for the development of l’X’s international visibility, I believe that it has been a driver for École Polytechnique to develop a more focused, more coherent international relations policy. 

Being small means that you have a limited capacity to respond to the many offers for cooperation and exchange that you receive. You have to make choices and to stay focused on a clear strategy, on which you need to communicate within your institution. International relations staff have to build a real closeness with the faculty.

Finally, being small does not mean you have to act alone.

L’X is a founding member and a leader of the Paris-Saclay University, a major scientific and economic cluster that brings together top French higher education and research institutions, federating 60,000 students and representing 15 per cent of the French research. That cluster concentrates some of the world’s finest expertise in several fields, such as mathematics, photovoltaics or laser physics, to name but a few, opening way to major European and international collaborations and enhancing the global worldwide visibility of French science.

While getting many of the advantages of a small institution, École Polytechnique staff and students also have access to all the benefits of a larger university.

Far from being an obstacle to its international development, being small has allowed École Polytechnique to design a unique academic environment based on students’ individual support and guidance, to define a successful international relations strategy that fully takes advantage of the top-quality, largely internationalised faculty, all the while being engaged in domestic networks that catalyse academic and scientific cooperation. So yes, small definitely is beautiful! 

Mathieu Le Traon is vice-president of international relations at École Polytechnique.

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