The world’s best small universities 2020

Does size matter? Apparently not, according to the students and faculty at the world’s outstanding small universities

Student life
July 23 2020
Small world


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, and has also heard directly from the students at some of those institutions about what they love most about attending a small college. For some, it was about smaller classes; for others, it was about closer relationships with teachers; and many said that a greater sense of community was the factor that clinched it for them. Those who studied at small universities based in larger cities said that they appreciated having the perks of a more intimate campus without missing out on the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life.

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To be eligible for the ranking, universities must appear in THE’s World University Rankings 2020, teach more than four subjects, and have fewer than 5,000 students.

The average number of students at an institution in the 2020 world’s best small universities ranking is 2,603 – that’s roughly the same number of passengers as would fit on 43 London buses. In contrast, the average number of students at an institution in THE’s main global ranking is 25,000 (or a whopping 313 buses!).

Students at a dozen of the smaller universities gave us an insight into their student life (see below), and it seems that this positive view of smaller schools is echoed by students from Paris to South Korea.

Top 20 small universities in the world 2020

1. California Institute of Technology (Caltech), United States

Despite its tiny size, Caltech’s rankings 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 also places at number two 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 counts 39 Nobel laureates among them.

Caltech: ‘uniquely difficult but a wonderful place to study’

2. École Polytechnique, France

École Polytechnique is one of the most prestigious grandes écoles in France and is particularly known for its engineering programmes.

Jianfei Zhang, a Chinese student at École Polytechnique, says students appreciate the favourable student-to-teacher ratio. The smaller class sizes, he adds, “really help us to master the various scientific concepts. This is not always feasible in big universities.”

As well as providing smaller class sizes, École Polytechnique is home to a diverse student body, with more than 60 nationalities on campus.

Hear more from Jianfei in his blog

3. 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.

Studying at POSTECH, South Korea

4. Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies – Pisa, Italy

The Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies is one of only four institutions in this list with fewer than 1,000 students.

The university can count 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 for free.

5. Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Italy

Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa is the smallest university on this list, with fewer than 600 students.

It was founded in 1810 and has seen many eminent figures pass through it, including poet Giosue 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.

A small university steeped in history and culture

6. Télécom Paris, France

Télécom Paris has a highly selective admissions process, recruiting some 250 graduate students, a third or so from abroad each year.

There are four departments at the university – electronics and communications, computer science and networking, signal and image processing, and economic and social science.

The university encourages entrepreneurship among students, and the Entrepreneur Incubator usually has about 40 companies on the go and is reckoned to have launched close to 400 enterprises.

7. University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg

The University of Luxembourg is one of the largest universities on this list, with a student population of 4,654.

The university is fairly young, having been established only in 2003. The university prides itself on its multilingual and international outlook, with lectures conducted in French, German and English. It is also compulsory for bachelor’s students to undertake a semester abroad.

My experience as an international student at the University of Luxembourg

8. 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 a small institution, 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 the academic staff.

9. 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. Other students may attend the university but only if they pass the rigorous entrance exams.

The unique charm of a tiny French university for a British student

10. Alfaisal University, Saudi Arabia

Alfaisal University is located in the capital city of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh.

Because of the university’s small size, students can benefit from an 11:1 student-to-staff ratio and compact teaching groups.

The university offers a wide range of postgraduate and undergraduate programmes across five subject areas (business, engineering, medicine, pharmacy, and science).

11. École des Ponts ParisTech, France

École des Ponts ParisTech is one of the oldest and most prestigious grandes écoles.

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.

12. Brighton and Sussex Medical School, United Kingdom

With fewer than 1,000 students, Brighton and Sussex Medical School is one of the smallest universities on this list.

The university was formed in 2003 through a partnership between the universities of Sussex and Brighton and surrounding NHS organisations to train future medical professionals.

13. 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.

The university is made up of six main departments: biological sciences, chemical sciences, electrical sciences, interdisciplinary research, mechanical sciences, and physical and mathematical sciences.

14. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden

There are fewer than 4,000 students at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and they are spread over several campuses around Sweden. The largest campus is in Uppsala, with other campuses dotted across the country.

The university offers far more than just courses in the agricultural sciences. Its remit covers architecture, engineering and economics, among others.

A strong emphasis is placed on research, and the institution produces about 1,500 papers a year.

Why is going to a small university beneficial?

15. Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech), China

SUSTech is still a relatively young institution, having been established in 2011.

Yet in just less than a decade, it has become an important university for science and technology research. Students are also able to take part in research projects.

16. University of Klagenfurt, Austria 

The University of Klagenfurt is the largest research and higher education institute in the state of Carinthia, Austria. The university is 30km away from the Slovenian border and 60 km from the Italian border and supports bi- and multiligualism. 

The university was originally founded in 1970 and was then relaunched in 1993.

17. Cyprus University of Technology (CUT), Cyprus

Loucas Gregoriou, an engineering and geomatics student at this small but high-performing university in Cyprus, sums up his experiences: “Being a student at CUT provided me with a lot of resources to progress and choose my next educational destination, which is to study multimedia and graphic design.

“The department excels in many ways, and it is the most appropriate educational programme to prepare me for my career. CUT, without a doubt, can offer many resources for those who want to utilise and kick-start their true potential.”

Although it has been welcoming students for only some 16 years, it has already established itself as one of the leading higher education institutions in Cyprus. It has developed strong international connections through its participation in the European Union’s Erasmus scheme and by cultivating links with international universities further afield.

18. Reykjavík University, Iceland

Reykjavík University might be among the best small universities in the world, but it is the largest private university in Iceland.

All undergraduate degrees are taught in Icelandic; however, postgraduate and PhD studies 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.

19. Jacobs University, Germany

Jacobs University is one of the most international universities in Germany and is also one of the smallest.

Its 1,142 students come from more than 110 countries, and the university’s main language of instruction is English.

Jacobs is a research-oriented university that covers a broad spectrum of subjects including natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.

20. 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.

Best small universities 2020

Best small university rank 2020 Best small university rank 2019 World University Rank 2020 University Country/region Number of students
1 1 2 California Institute of Technology United States        2,240
2 2 93 École Polytechnique France        3,030
3 3 =146 Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH) South Korea        3,215
4 4 =149 Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies – Pisa Italy           776
5 5 =152 Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa Italy           558
6 NR 188 Télécom Paris France           923
7 6 201–250 University of Luxembourg Luxembourg        4,654
8 8 201–250 Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) South Korea        4,127
9 7 201–250 École Normale Supérieure de Lyon France        2,362
10 =14 251–300 Alfaisal University Saudi Arabia        2,566
11 9 251–300 École des Ponts ParisTech France        2,005
12 11 251–300 Brighton and Sussex Medical School UK           879
13 13 301–350 Indian Institute of Science India        4,128
14 12 301–350 Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences Sweden        3,737
15 16 301–350 Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) China        3,198
16 NR 301–350 University of Klagenfurt Austria        3,639
17 17 301–350 Cyprus University of Technology Cyprus        3,228
18 =14 301–350 Reykjavík University Iceland        2,879
19 10 301–350 Jacobs University Germany        1,142
20 NR 301–350 Università della Svizzera Italiana Switzerland        2,768
21 NR 351–400 Clark University United States        3,045
22 NR 351–400 IMT Atlantique France        1,676
23 18 351–400 University of Alaska Fairbanks United States        3,593
24 21 351–400 Indian Institute of Technology Indore India        1,128
25 NR 401–500 Universiti Brunei Darussalam Brunei Darussalam        3,830
26 25 401–500 Tokyo Medical and Dental University (TMDU) Japan        2,999
27 20 401–500 Sabancı University Turkey        3,605
28 23 401–500 Centrale Nantes France        1,706
29 19 401–500 Free University of Bozen-Bolzano Italy        3,891
30 27 401–500 Bond University Australia        3,341
31 22 401–500 New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology United States        1,809
32 32 501–600 Yokohama City University Japan        4,910
33 28 501–600 University of Neuchâtel Switzerland        4,284
34 29 501–600 National Yang-Ming University Taiwan        4,258
35 30 501–600 Lincoln University New Zealand        2,476
36 31 601–800 École Normale Supérieure Paris-Saclay France        1,869
37 34 601–800 Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad India        2,088
38 NR 601–800 Kurume University Japan        4,850
39 35 801–1000 University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) Canada        2,733
40 NR 801–1000 Lahore University of Management Sciences Pakistan        3,859
41 33 801–1000 Tezpur University India        3,904
42 38 801–1000 Acharya Nagarjuna University India        4,792
43 37 1001+ Nagoya City University Japan        4,444
44 36 1001+ University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague Czech Republic        4,285
45 39 1001+ University of Yamanashi Japan        4,659
46 NR 1001+ Polytechnic University of Cartagena Spain        4,749
47 40 1001+ Toyohashi University of Technology (TUT) Japan        2,135
48 42 1001+ Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology Japan        2,654
49 41 1001+ Ochanomizu University Japan        2,775
50 NR 1001+ Tzu Chi University Taiwan        3,492
51 43 1001+ Kyoto Institute of Technology Japan        3,989
52 44 1001+ University of Shizuoka Japan        3,002
53 NR 1001+ State University of Santa Cruz United States        3,954
54 NR 1001+ Federal University of Health Sciences of Porto Alegre (UFCSPA) Brazil        3,621
55 NR 1001+ Akita University Japan        4,942
56 NR 1001+ Latvia University of Life Sciences and Technologies Latvia        4,216
57 46 1001+ Utsunomiya University Japan        4,872

Read more: Best universities in the world 

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