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Aude Untersee, a geosciences undergraduate at École Normale Supérieure, explains the benefits of a small university
After two years of preparatory classes to try the prestigious high school competitive exams, I had the choice of many universities and schools, most of them with a huge number of staff. The École Normale Supérieure (ENS) may be one of the smallest universities in France in terms of the number of students, but that’s precisely the reason why I wanted to attend. For me, it was the best opportunity to study in very good conditions. Indeed, a smaller number of staff implies that there is better training and facilities that allows students to blossom.
First, I think having fewer staff members substantially simplifies the organisation of teaching and schedule constraints because there are fewer people to manage or adapt to. Here at the ENS, we often reorganise teaching units so that everybody can attend the classes they are interested in. Therefore, the effectiveness of our university training is really strengthened because we have a kind of personalised curriculum fitting our interests and professional projects. We also have the chance to have a referee who is generally available for us to talk to and who can give us lots of information when we need it.
Moreover, a small university means small classes, which encourages students to pay better attention, and also allows for a tighter focus on the content of the course. Having courses in small classrooms instead of attending them in a huge lecture hall enables everyone, even shy people (like me), to ask questions and get answers quickly thanks to close contact with the teacher. I believe that the teaching we receive when attending courses is so important because it’s often the first overview on a subject. We learn more effectively when we have the opportunity to react and participate as soon as we feel ready. Yet this would obviously be impossible in a lecture hall with 200 students!
One other strong advantage is that the direct interaction with teachers lets students shape and guide the course the way they like, particularly considering their background knowledge and academic level. It is particularly good for us to express ourselves in this way because we can feel that our personal opinion matters. I do not think that there are many universities in which you can have a nice breakfast with the director and your fellows to discuss your studies and your suggestions to improve how the university functions!
Once again, I’d like to insist on the benefits of having a small number of staff for our professional projects. As we are few students, we have more choices of internships and it’s quite easy to search for industry contacts (even all over the world!) thanks to our teachers’ networks. I didn’t expect that we could so easily talk to renowned scientists and visit their workplaces and laboratories; it’s like we already joined the network!
This means that after our studies we can quickly integrate into career or research networks.
Above all, small universities are good places to connect with other students and build strong friendships across year groups. Life at a small university enables gatherings that include a wide range of students of different skills and levels. As a scientific student, I love talking to economists, literature students or language learners, who bring a different and complementary view to many questions. And some of them are my best friends now!
Finally, there could be a negative feature of going to such a small school; students are so tempted by the rich community life that they cannot find enough time to work! This is the trap of being curious about everything!
All in all, I would say that studying in a small university offers pleasant and effective training, which creates greater knowledge and more open-mindedness.
Valentin Melot addresses the positives and negatives of going to a small university
First, while bigger universities need vast buildings and are mostly located at urban peripheries, Paris’ ENS can give lectures and host many of its students in the heart of Paris, so we can easily leave the campus and meet other people. Moreover, smaller universities have fewer students in classes, so you can easily interact with teachers during classes. All the students and teachers in my department have tea together once a week in a friendly atmosphere!
Furthermore, smaller universities need fewer people run it, which means there is less red tape so more flexibility for everybody; my routine is much easier than those of my friends in bigger universities. Ultimately, what is true for the administration is also true for students’ organisations: we are free to hold general meetings to vote on budgets, create associations and discuss the administration’s decisions.
Nevertheless I see two major drawbacks for students. On the one hand, ENS cannot deliver the “standard” diplomas (bachelor’s and master’s degrees), so we need to enlist at a standard university that delivers those qualifications based on the classes we attend at ENS. On the other hand, there are not enough students to fill some specialised lectures; in the mathematics department, no third-year class is given so we have to go to the other universities for master’s specialised classes. In addition, the rankings of smaller universities is a concerning issue: while 10 Fields Medals and 10 science Nobel prizes came out of ENS, it does not make the top 50 of international rankings, making the recruitment of international students harder.
Something I didn’t expect: the complete freedom allowed in a smaller university. Before coming here, I knew that I would have a tutor, but I thought the idea was for the tutor to watch over us to make sure that we study hard and devote all our time to classes, like a tutor would do in preparatory school. I was wrong: all the energy teachers and administrators dedicate to us is used to discuss our projects, plan internships and customise our curriculum. What I feared could limit us is actually set up to take our differences into account.
Valentin Melot is a French mathematics student. After two years in a high school mathematics preparatory class in Lycée Pierre-de-Fermat (Toulouse, France), punctuated by a short period of professional experience in an engineering consulting firm in London, he passed the admissions exams for the École Polytechnique at the age of 17. He is now studying towards a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, while working a few hours every week in preparatory classes as an assistant teacher. Mainly interested in set theory, point-set topology and computer science, he also spends some of his free time contributing to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
École Normale Supérieure is ranked at number 2 in the Times Higher Education World’s Best Small Universities 2016 table.