The world’s best small universities 2017

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

March 7 2017

While many prospective students will crave large campuses and the anonymity of a bustling student body, many 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 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 students who studied at small universities based in larger cities said that they enjoyed the perks of a more intimate campus at the same time as enjoying the hustle and bustle of busy metropolitan life.

To be eligible for the ranking, universities must appear in Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings 2016-17, teach more than four subjects, and have fewer than 5,000 students. 

The average number of students at an institution in the 2017 world’s best small universities ranking is 3,038 – that’s about the same number of people as would fit on 45 London buses. In contrast, the average number of students at an institution in THE’s main global ranking is 24,953 (or a whopping 378 buses!).

But is there a marked benefit for those who study at a smaller university? In THE’s recent ranking of the best liberal arts colleges in the US, it was found that students in the smaller places were generally more satisfied with the teaching they received.

As part of this year’s world’s best small universities ranking, we have asked students at a dozen smaller universities to give us their take on student life (see the links below), and it seems that this positive view of smaller schools is echoed by students from Paris to Japan.

2017 Best Small University Rank University Country Total students WUR rankings 2016-2017
1 California Institute of Technology US 2181 2
2 École Normale Supérieure France 1548 66
3 Pohang University of Science and Technology South Korea 3017 =104
4 École Polytechnique France 2669 =116
5 Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa Italy 545 =137
6 Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna Italy 679 =190
7 École Normale Supérieure de Lyon France 2238 201-250
8 Indian Institute of Science India 3398 201-250
9 Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences Sweden 3838 251-300
10 Free University of Bozen-Bolzano Italy 2813 251-300
11 Koç University Turkey 4793 251-300
12 Clark University US 3239 301-350
13 University of Alaska Fairbanks US 3875 301-350
14 Sabancı University Turkey 2999 301-350
15 Hasselt University Belgium 4913 401-500
16 Cyprus University of Technology Cyprus 3012 401-500
17 Tokyo Medical and Dental University (TMDU) Tokyo 2906 401-500
18 University of Neuchâtel Switzerland 4208 401-500
19 University of Tulsa US 4682 501-600
20 Bond University Australia 3201 501-600

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 (see the 2016 list), but it also places at number two in the overall World University Rankings. Not bad for an institution with just over 2,000 students.

The small size of both the academic teaching staff body and the student population means that the opportunity for impromptu meetings and discussions is multitudinous and the opportunity for working across faculties is encouraged, as rankings editor Phil Baty found when he visited the campus in 2014.

Caltech offers a range of science and technology programmes taught by world-renowned professors and 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 currently counts 34 Nobel laureates among them.

2. École Normale Supérieure, France

The first of three of the small universities located in Paris, École Normale Supérieure has managed to maintain its 2016 position, again laying claim to second place. 

The campus, located in the heart of central Paris, is home to just over 1,500 students. It provides students with the benefits of attending a small university while still experiencing the metropolitan benefits of a bigger city.

A unique selling point of the university is that students are encouraged to design their own courses based on their interests and their goals post-graduation. The university offers a wide array of courses for students to customise (except, you’ll be pleased to hear, for medicine and engineering). 

Aude Untersee, a geosciences undergraduate at the university, says that “the effectiveness of our university training is really strengthened because we have a kind of personalised curriculum fitting our interests and professional projects”.

Find out more about Aude’s experiences here

3. Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH), South Korea

POSTECH was founded in 1986 as the first research-oriented university in South Korea. Since its inception, it has maintained its small size and reputation by admitting only 320 students every year through a highly selective process. 

The structure and operation of POSTECH was inspired by Caltech, and it seems that this system of running a small science and technology research-focused university has worked well for both universities, as both have maintained their top five positions in the 2017 World’s Best Small University ranking. 

POSTECH students hail the small classes and the fact that professors know them by name as one of the main reasons why they love studying there.  

Read more about the student experience at POSTECH here.

4. École Polytechnique, France

École Polytechnique stays ahead of the curve by regularly updating the courses it offers. The university recently launched an industry-oriented graduate degree, and a PhD programme combining master’s and PhD degrees. This year, it is also set to launch a new bachelor’s programme with an emphasis on mathematics.

Jianfei Zhang, a student from China currently studying at École Polytechnique, says that 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 easily feasible in big universities.”

As well as refreshing the curriculum regularly, École Polytechnique is home to a very diverse student body, with more than 60 nationalities on campus. 

Hear more from Jianfei in his blog.

5. Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Italy

A new entry this year, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa is also the smallest university on our list – it has just 545 students.

The university offers a range of subjects across the science and humanities spectrum. In fact, the core purpose of the university’s founding was to explore the relationships between the sciences and the humanities, and some of the most popular subjects are history of art and archaeology, modern and contemporary literature, mathematics and physics.

Francesco Morosi, a PhD student of Classics, admits that a smaller town may not be as lively as a larger city, but for students the strong community feel outweighs that. “The inhabitants of the colleges are more than just a group of co-tenants or colleagues living together in the ordinary sense: instead, the colleges encourage the development of an extremely pronounced sense of community spirit,” he says.

Read more about the student community at Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa here

6. Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Italy 

The Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna is the second of the universities featured in this ranking that is located in Italy, and the only other university 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 also demonstrate proficiency in two languages. On achieving that, and gaining entry, students can attend the university for free. 

7. École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, France

This high-achieving small university is located in the beautiful city of Lyons. 

École Normale Supérieure de Lyon maintains its high student grades in part by recruiting its students from preparatory schools around France. Other students can attend the university if they pass the rigorous entrance exams.

8. Indian Institute of Science, India 

The Indian Institute of Science is another new institution to make the rankings – and the only one on the list located in India. 

During their undergraduate studies, students are taught physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology and the humanities with a strong emphasis on engineering. In their final year, students are expected to conduct their own research-oriented project under academic supervision.

Students who want a break from the books can enjoy the diverse plant life and wildlife on campus, abundant with exotic trees and more than 100 species of birds. 

9. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden

Although there are only 4,000 students at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, they are spread out across 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.

Explore the teaching practices at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences here

10. Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy 

Having once been referred to as the “Diamond in the Dolomites”, the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano’s stunning surroundings do not seem to be a distraction to the students who attend. According to Oswin Maurer, dean of the Faculty of Economics and Management, 80 per cent of the university’s graduates are employed in appropriate positions within one year of leaving and the other 20 per cent are pursuing further study.

The university currently counts 2,813 students, who are spread across three campuses in Bolzano, Brixen and Bruneck. 

Multilinguilism is one of the defining characteristics of this university, with the lectures being conducted in German, Italian and English. The university also strongly encourages students to spend some time abroad in order to further these language skills. 

Professor Maurer explains why he thinks more students are choosing small universities here.

11. Koç University, Turkey 

Although a relatively young university, having been founded in 1993, Koç University has become one of the leading higher education institutions in Turkey. 

It offers courses across six faculties: social sciences and humanities; administrative sciences and economics; science; engineering; law; and nursing and medicine.

The university encourages students to undertake work experience during their degree, with 40 per cent of students carrying out two internships during their time there. 

12. Clark University, USA 

Clark University was set up primarily as a research university in 1887. It has now expanded to cover 32 undergraduate majors,12 master’s degree programmes, four dual master’s programmes and eight PhD programmes. 

The university focuses on delivering a liberal arts education for undergraduates and postgraduates, with some of the most popular subjects being psychology, political science, biology, business management and economics.

13. University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA 

The University of Alaska Fairbanks is spread out over seven campuses and is the flagship of the University of Alaska system.  

The main campus covers 2,250 acres inclusive of two man-made lakes, walking trails and an ice skating arena for skating and ice hockey. 

Fishery is one of the most popular graduate courses, which is no surprise given the university’s proximity to Alaska’s western coast. However, the university does also offer courses across the sciences, the arts and the humanities.

14. Sabancı University, Turkey

The second Turkish institution in this list is Sabancı University, which was set up in 1994 by the Sabancı Group.

The fundamental benefit of being a student at Sabancı University is being in a friendly and successful environment with the freedom to study abroad through Erasmus, says Atakan Demir, an undergraduate student in computer science and engineering.

He also puts to bed the notion that smaller universities have less going on, saying that the university holds “thousands of social activities throughout the year”.

The university offers both undergraduate and graduate programmes, as well as minor honours degrees and double degrees across three faculties of engineering and natural sciences, arts and social sciences, and management.

Because of the university’s strong international links, Atakan says, he was able to spend a semester studying in Hong Kong as well.

15. Hasselt University, Belgium

Hasselt University is the biggest university featured in this ranking, with just under 5,000 students. 

It was originally established as the Limburg University Centre in 1973; the moniker Hasselt University was adopted in 2005. 

Students enjoy going to the university so much that one has set up a website – “I love Hasselt” – to document his experiences there. Another student, Maik Kristen, has started an Instagram account, portraying images of Hasselt’s campus and his experiences in Belgium. 

Watch Maik Kristen’s video about what he enjoys about Hasselt University

16. 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 at the institute by saying: “Being a student at CUT provided me with a lot of resources in multiple aspects to progress and choose my next educational destination, which is to study multimedia and graphic design.

“Based on my personal experience and cooperation with the department, I found that it excels in many ways and it is the most appropriate educational programme to prepare me for my career. Being a young rather than small university in my opinion, CUT, without a doubt, can offer many resources for those who are willing to utilise and kick-start their true potential.”

Students have been attending the university for only about 10 years, but the institute has already established itself as one of the leading higher education institutions in Cyprus. It has developed strong international connections through being part of the European Union’s Erasmus scheme and cultivating links with international universities further afield.

17. Tokyo Medical and Dental University (TMDU), Japan

One of the many myths about the experience of attending a small university is that it may be boring, and there is less to do. That’s certainly what Chihiro Mano thought until she first set foot on the campus of Tokyo Medical and Dental University. 

“The reality was totally different. Being a student at a small medical university is amazing. I made many great friends not only in medical fields but also in dentistry and nursing. I became very close with my teachers and gained a lot of experience in research and clinical studies,” she says.

Tokyo Medical and Dental University is an easily accessible university with campuses spread across the centre of Tokyo. 

Read more about the many things there are to do at TMDU here

18. University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland 

Stéphanie Musy, a student of hydrogeology and geothermics, says that she has never attended a class with more than 30 students at the University of Neuchâtel – and that is one of the best things about her studies. She appreciates that staff know her name and are willing to adapt to fit to the curriculum she has chosen.

The University of Neuchâtel is a French-speaking university in Switzerland, and it follows a similar structure to French universities. Classes are taught in both French and English and are offered across four different faculties.

Learn more about the community at the University of Neuchâtel here

19. University of Tulsa (TU), USA

The University of Tulsa is the second-largest university featured on this list, having an enrolment of more than 4,500 students. 

As well as providing students with a strong liberal arts education, the university has a number of unique traditions. One of them is the ringing of the Cupola Bell to mark the end of exams for graduating students; another is Springfest, a live outdoors music festival. However, a slightly more unusual tradition is the Toilet Bowl – a flag football game played by students living in the John Mabee Hall, or the “John”.

The game is followed by a big party.

Abbie Cassody, a marketing student, says that she chose TU because “after graduating from a large high school, I was attracted to the small class sizes, the ability to form personal relationships with faculty, and I wanted to get to know my peers better”.

Micaela Young, a psychology student, echoed these views, stating that: “TU has a tonne to offer in spite of it’s being a small, private school. The research opportunities are awesome and very attainable no matter what year you are. Plus, the campus is beautiful, and the people are cool and friendly.”

20. Bond University, Australia 

Rounding off the Top 20 of the World’s Best Small University rankings is Bond University, the only institution from Australia to feature. Located on the Gold Coast, the university campus circles around a man-made lake with plenty of restaurants, cafes and bars to keep students satisfied.

Alice Ringelstein, a business student at Bond, says that one of the main reasons why she chose to study at a smaller university was because of the “opportunity to spend a significant amount of one-on-one time with my teachers, with some of them becoming not just advisers, but real mentors.”

Read more about life at a small university in Australia here

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