The world’s best small universities 2018

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

August 3 2018
Small world

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 appreciated the perks of a more intimate campus at the same time as enjoying the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life.

To be eligible for the ranking, universities must appear in Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings 2018, teach more than four subjects, and have fewer than 5,000 students. 

The average number of students at an institution in the 2018 world’s best small universities ranking is approximately 3,258 – that’s about the same number of people as would fit on 41 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 the links below) and it seems that this positive view of smaller schools is echoed by students from Paris to Tokyo. 

Top 20 small universities in the world 2018

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 three in the overall World University Rankings. Not bad for an institution with just over 2,000 students.

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 counts 34 Nobel laureates among them.

2. École Polytechnique, France

École Polytechnique stays ahead of the curve by regularly updating the courses that 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 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

3. Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Italy 

The Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna is the first of the universities featured in this ranking that is located in Italy, and the only 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. 

4. University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg

The University of Luxembourg is the first of the new entries in this year’s ranking, just making it on to the list with a student population of 4,969. 

The university is also fairly young, having only been established 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

5. 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 can attend the university but only if they pass the rigorous entrance exams.

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

6. Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, South Korea 

The 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. 

7. Clark University, United States

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.

8. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden

There are only 4,000 students at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and these 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?

9. 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 for 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’s students are spread across three campuses in Bolzano, Brixen and Bruneck. 

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

Small universities – international or provincial?

10. University of Alaska Fairbanks, United States

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

The main campus covers 2,250 acres, including 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 west coast. However, the university also offers courses across the sciences, arts and humanities.

11. 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 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. Being a young rather than small university, CUT, without a doubt, can offer many resources for those who want to utilise and kick-start their true potential.”

Students have only been attending the university for about 11 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.

12. Sabancı University, Turkey

Sabancı University was set up in 1994 by the Sabancı Group.

The benefit of being a student at Sabancı University is its friendly 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: 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.

13. University of Tulsa (TU), United States

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 ton 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 in. Plus, the campus is beautiful, and the people are cool and friendly.”

14. Reykjavík University, Iceland

Reykjavík University is a new entry in this year’s countdown of the best small universities but is the largest private university in Iceland. 

All undergraduate degrees are taught in Icelandic, however graduate 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. 

15. 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 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 grew very close to 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 central Tokyo. 

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

16. University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland 

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

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 the curriculum that she has chosen.

Follow the rest of Stéphanie's blog here

17. Bond University, Australia 

Bond University is the only institution from Australia to feature in the table. Located on the Gold Coast, the university campus circles around a man-made lake with plenty of restaurants, cafes and bars with plenty of social activities for the students. 

Alice Ringelstein, a business student at Bond, says that one of the main reasons she chose to study at a smaller university was 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”.

How to make meaningful connections at a small university

18. École Normale Supérieure de Cachan, France École Normales Supérieures

Another new entry and the second of the École Normales Supérieures, which are part of the Grandes Écoles system in France. There are only four École Normales Supérieures in the country (Paris, Rennes, Lyon and Cachan) and, based on student numbers, Cachan is the largest.

Students have to pass a competitive exam before being accepted to study at the university. Students also receive a monthly salary while studying at the institution and on graduation they must work for a French public administration for six years.  

19. National Yang-Ming University, Taiwan

One of only two Asian universities in the table, National Yang-Ming University is also one of the largest, with more than 4,000 students. 

The university was the first medicine-orientated university in Taiwan, but over time it has established schools in engineering, biomedical science, life sciences, nursing, dentistry, humanities, social sciences and pharmaceutical sciences. 

The university is located in Qilian, which offers students the best of both worlds, from the beautiful landscapes on the hills, to the hustle and bustle of nearby Taipei.

20. Tezpur University, India

Rounding out the top 20 is Tezpur University in India, the second Asian university on the list. 

Located in the Assam region in north-eastern India, students have access to the city of Tezpur and the wider region, with its rural attractions and tea gardens, plus its well-known parks and religious and cultural sites. 

Teaching at the university takes place in four schools focusing on science, humanities and social sciences; management sciences and engineering. These are subdivided into a further 21 departments. 

Small university 2018 rank Small university 2017 rank World University rank 2018 University Country/region Number of students
1 1 3 California Institute of Technology United States 2209
2 4 115 École Polytechnique France 2799
3 6 155 Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna Italy 690
4 - 179 University of Luxembourg Luxembourg 4969
5 7 182 École Normale Supérieure de Lyon France 2221
6 - 201–250 Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology South Korea 4046
7 12 251–300 Clark University United States 3316
8 9 251–300 Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences Sweden 3812
9 10 301–350 Free University of Bozen-Bolzano Italy 3304
10 13 301–350 University of Alaska Fairbanks United States 3769
11 16 351–400 Cyprus University of Technology Cyprus 3072
12 14 351–400 Sabancı University Turkey 3247
13 19 401–500 University of Tulsa United States 4671
14 - 401–500 Reykjavík University Iceland 3206
15 17 401–500 Tokyo Medical and Dental University (TMDU) Japan 2949
16 18 401–500 University of Neuchâtel Switzerland 4216
17 20 501–600 Bond University Australia 3215
18 - 601–800 École Normale Supérieure de Cachan France 1631
19 - 601–800 National Yang-Ming University Taiwan 4255
20 - 601–800 Tezpur University India 3611

Read more: Best young universities in the world 2018


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