- Student life
While many prospective students will crave large campuses and the anonymity of a bustling student body, others will be attracted to the experience that a smaller institution can offer.
Times Higher Education has once again revealed the best small universities across the globe – from the US, China and South Korea to India, Japan and France.
To be eligible for the ranking, universities must appear in THE’s World University Rankings 2023, teach more than four subjects, and have fewer than 5,000 students.
The average number of students at institutions in the 2023 best small universities ranking is 3,317. In contrast, the average number of students at an institution in THE’s main global ranking is 25,000.
Top 20 small universities in the world 2023
1. California Institute of Technology (Caltech), United States
Despite its tiny size, Caltech’s credentials are impressive. Not only has it managed to defend its position as the best small university in the world for another year, but it’s also sixth in the overall World University Rankings. Not bad for an institution with just over 2,200 students.
Caltech offers a range of science and technology programmes taught by world-renowned scholars, as well as high-end facilities such as its Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Attending Caltech provides the opportunity to join a group of award-winning alumni that includes 39 Nobel laureates.
2. Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH), South Korea
POSTECH was established in 1986 to provide advanced education for prospective engineers.
The university also offers courses and opportunities for students to become entrepreneurs, such as taking part in clubs, start-up prep groups, training on patents and leaves of absence to create a new venture.
3. Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST), South Korea
Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology was established in 2009, making it one of the youngest universities in this table.
It may be small but it has bold ambitions to be ranked among the top 10 science and technology universities by 2030.
All the courses are taught in English and there is a strong push towards internationalisation of the student body and academic staff.
4. Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Italy
Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa is the smallest university on this list, with under 700 students and the only university with fewer than 1,000 students.
It was founded in 1810 and has seen many eminent figures pass through it, including poet Giosuè Carducci, Nobel prizewinner in physics Carlo Rubbia, physicist Enrico Fermi, former Italian prime minister Carlo Ciampi and mathematician Alessio Figalli.
The university focuses on teaching in the humanities, the sciences and the political and social sciences.
Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies counts some of Italy’s finest scientific and political minds among its alumni, including former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato and neuroscientist Giuliano Tononi.
To attend the university, students must achieve top marks in their entrance exam and demonstrate proficiency in two languages. On achieving that, and gaining entry, students can attend the university free.
6. Università della Svizzera Italiana, Switzerland
Università della Svizzera Italiana was established in 1995 with campuses in Lugano, Mendrisio and Bellinzona. It is the only university in Switzerland whose official language is Italian.
The university has a 1:8 teacher-to-student ratio. There is also a student newspaper called L’universo.
7. École des Ponts ParisTech, France
École des Ponts ParisTech is one of the oldest and most prestigious grandes écoles (a group of prestigious universities in France dedicated to engineering and science research).
Upon its founding, the university’s primary focus was to train engineers, but now it has expanded to offer programmes in computer science, mathematics, finance, economics, urban studies and environment, and transport engineering.
8. Bond University, Australia
Bond University is a small university located in Gold Coast, Australia.
The university offers housing for international and domestic students, and the student organisation organises activities and clubs for the student body.
9. Brighton and Sussex Medical School, United Kingdom
With just over 1,000 students, Brighton and Sussex Medical School is one of the smallest universities on this list.
The institution was formed in 2003 through a partnership between the universities of Sussex and Brighton and surrounding NHS organisations to train future medical professionals.
10. Indian Institute of Science, India
The Indian Institute of Science was founded in 1909 and is located in Bangalore, the capital of India’s southern Karnataka state.
It is made up of six main departments: biological sciences, chemical sciences, electrical sciences, interdisciplinary research, mechanical sciences, and physical and mathematical sciences.
11. Alfaisal University, Saudi Arabia
Alfaisal University is located in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh.
Because of the university’s small size, students benefit from an 11:1 student-to-staff ratio and compact teaching groups.
Alfaisal offers a wide range of postgraduate and undergraduate programmes across five subject areas (business, engineering, medicine, pharmacy and science).
12. École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, France
This high-achieving small university is located in the beautiful city of Lyon.
École Normale Supérieure de Lyon maintains its high student grades in part by recruiting its students from preparatory schools around France. Students from other countries may attend the university, but only if they pass the rigorous entrance exams.
13. Abu Dhabi University, Abu Dhabi
A new entry on this year’s list, Abu Dhabi University is the largest private university in Abu Dhabi.
It has three campuses – Khalifa City, Al Ain and Dubai – and six colleges: arts and sciences, business, engineering, health sciences, law and academic programmes for military colleges.
14. Reykjavík University, Iceland
Reykjavík University might be among the world’s best small universities, but it is the largest private university in Iceland.
All undergraduate degrees are taught in Icelandic; however, postgraduate and PhD programmes are taught in English. Teachers and other university staff have a good knowledge of English and will be able to help those who do not have a strong grasp of the native language.
The university consists of four academic schools: law, business, computer science, and science and engineering.
15. Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology LUT, Finland
Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology LUT is the only Finnish university to focus on teaching and research in engineering and technology. The university is particularly well known in the fields of renewable technology, combatting climate change and finding sustainable engineering solutions.
Some 15 per cent of the student population are international, representing 94 nationalities.
16. Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Brunei
Despite having fewer than 4,000 students, Universiti Brunei Darussalam is the country’s largest university in terms of student numbers and subjects offered.
It was established in 1985 and offers undergraduate and postgraduate degrees across nine faculties and seven research institutes.
17. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden
There are just over 4,000 students at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and they are spread over several campuses around Sweden, with the largest campus in Uppsala.
The university offers far more than just courses in the agricultural sciences. Its remit also incudes architecture, engineering and economics.
A strong emphasis is placed on research, and the institution produces about 1,500 papers a year.
18. University of Vaasa, Finland
The University of Vaasa is one of the biggest schools in Finland, with just under 4,000 students.
Every academic year the university welcomes roughly 200 international students from across the globe as part of its academic exchange programme.
Shoolini University of Biotechnology and Management Sciences is a private research-oriented university that was established in 2009.
The university is known for its green status, producing twice the amount of electricity that it consumes. The campus itself is surrounded by pine and deodar forests. The buildings are energy-efficient and there are more than 100 modern laboratories, as well as a library.
20. IMT Atlantique, France
IMT Atlantique was established in 2017 through the merger of two smaller institutions. It is one of France’s grandes écoles and has three campuses: in Brest, Nantes and Rennes.