Swiss precision

EPFL is the world’s leading 100 Under 50 university: its president, Patrick Aebischer, explains why the institution has risen so high, so fast

April 29, 2015
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne campus
Source: Jamani Caillet/EPFL

In the not-so-distant past, competition for university funds and talent, as well as performance benchmarking, was limited to national borders. Today, however, the academic landscape is global and increasingly competitive: some would even say it is a battlefield.

In 1969, our institution, then known as École Polytechnique de l’Université de Lausanne, became an independent federal body under its current name, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, or EPFL. Financed by the Swiss federal government, it initially had a remit to train engineers for domestic industry. By the turn of the millennium, however, 27 per cent of EPFL’s 5,000 students and 37 per cent of its 198 academics came from overseas. Today, with 50 per cent of its 10,000 students and close to 70 per cent of its 390 faculty members hailing from abroad, EPFL is considered one of the world’s most international academic environments – and justifiably so.

In less than a decade, the university has reinvented itself by changing its structure and developing a new corporate culture. Strongly positioned in the world rankings, EPFL has carved out a reputation as a high-quality teaching and research hub in the heart of Europe. Equally importantly, it is a linchpin in the learning and economic ecosystem that makes up the Lake Geneva area, collaborating closely with other educational establishments, teaching hospitals, local industry and multinationals to ensure continued development and economic growth.

EPFL’s senior management took a proactive approach to positioning the school on the global stage by reinterpreting its three core missions: education, research and technology transfer. From the academic point of view, the university’s 13 departments were reorganised into five schools and two colleges, each managed by an executive dean. This was important as it broke down established departmental boundaries, creating opportunities for scientific cross-fertilisation and the emergence of transdisciplinary research centres and programmes.

At the beginning of the millennium, not all the ingredients and academic expertise necessary for realising our ambitions were in place. But by creating new schools such as Life Sciences, Basic Sciences and Humanities, we were able to achieve critical mass in many key research domains. Integrating external research centres such as the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research and the Institute of Microengineering at the University of Neuchâtel further contributed to this consolidation of the regional academic landscape.

Our reorganisation opened the door for collaboration and was essential to EPFL’s increased success in attracting research funding, renowned scientists and outstanding students.

As Donald Kennedy, a former president of Stanford University, put it, “a university is its faculty”. EPFL’s transformation could not have occurred without an aggressive hiring policy that targets world-class senior academics and promising newcomers. Offering competitive packages in terms of salaries, start-up deals and baseline budgetary support, world-class facilities and technical infrastructure in a highly stimulating and open environment has proved to be a blueprint for success.

In parallel to this, EPFL introduced the position of “tenure-track assistant professor” – a rather bold concept in continental Europe – in an effort to attract the world’s best young researchers. In addition to benefiting from excellent salaries, start-up money and facilities, young professors are not left to fend for themselves, but are regularly assessed and coached by senior scholars.

Both programmes have proved to be extremely successful: over the past decade, 70 per cent of EPFL’s academic positions have been renewed; in 2014, of our 390 academics, 60 were tenure-track. The benefits of having a body of young and highly motivated scientists on board is shown by our outstanding success rate in obtaining prestigious European Research Council funding: since 2007, EPFL has attracted 94 ERC grants with a total value of more than €220 million (£159 million). Competitive researchers attract competitive funding.

EPFL’s third mission consists of helping to create jobs and companies by transferring the ideas and technologies generated in its laboratories to the industrial and economic sectors. Innovation and technology transfer are strategically positioned under a dedicated vice-president and the institution has developed several tools to close the innovation gap: for example, we have put in place liaison officers and innovation coaches to act as a bridge between industry’s technological needs and our scientific research potential; we have created schemes for the management of intellectual property; we have established Innogrants, an internal seed-funding programme for EPFL researchers with entrepreneurial flair; and we have secured better access to the local small-business network. It is no accident that in 2014, EPFL start-ups raised a record €220 million and 24 fledgling companies left our labs.

Various strategic partnership models have been developed to attract leading companies to the EPFL Innovation Park. The goal is to establish relationships that foster sustainable innovation, technology transfer and knowledge exchange.

Such models can take the form of multidisciplinary research initiatives, technology incubators or sponsored centres of expertise. More than 20 global companies including Nestlé, Crédit Suisse, Logitech, Cisco, Intel, Siemens and PSA Peugeot Citroën are currently located on campus.

On the educational front, EPFL is a European leader in the development of massive open online courses and other web tools. We believe that Moocs will play an important role in the future of higher education, but we also see them as tools for lifelong learning programmes and for higher education capacity building in Africa and other developing parts of the world today.

EPFL has come a long way in less than 50 years and since 2000 has embarked on an ambitious programme for development. If we were to choose two keywords to describe us, they would be “competitive” and “innovative”. The school is now larger but less dependent on state funding; internationally acclaimed but more strongly rooted to the local economy; and on the right track to meet the challenges facing global higher education.

Patrick Aebischer
President, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

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