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The world’s best small universities 2016

Browse the full list of the world's best small universities in 2016-2017 and read student accounts of what it's like studying at each institution

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Carly Minsky's avatar

Carly Minsky

January 25 2016
Top 20 best small universities in the world (illustration)



If every single student at your university were to go on an international trip together, how many planes would it take to get everyone there?

The average university in Times Higher Education’s could fill just over 55 planes with a student population of about 25,000 people.

But the 20 institutions classed as the world’s best small universities would be a lot more fuel-efficient. Most would need fewer than 10 aircrafts to seat every enrolled student.

In such intimate environments, students often feel part of a tight community, recognising the majority of their peers and professors on campus.

And yet even with fewer than 5,000 students, the best small universities offer a wide range of academic opportunities. All the universities featured in this ranking cover four or more broad subjects out of arts and humanities, engineering and technology, medicine, life sciences, physical sciences and social sciences.

Representing 10 different countries in Europe, Asia and the US, these are the best “tiny” universities.

Top 20 best small universities in the world

Small rank



Total students

World University Rankings 2015-2016


California Institute of Technology (Caltech)





École Normale Supérieure





École Polytechnique





Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH)

South Korea




École Normale Supérieure de Lyon





Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences





Oregon Health and Science University





Koç University





University of Alaska Fairbanks





Sabancı University





University of Neuchâtel





Tokyo Medical and Dental University (TMDU)





National Yang-Ming University





Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati





University of Tulsa





Yokohama City University





Florida Institute of Technology





Savitribai Phule Pune University





National University of Science and Technology (MISiS)





Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology




The figures on student numbers refer to 2012-13.

Read on for excerpts from student blogs and more facts about the world's best small universities.

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

“I always refer to Caltech’s small size as being very similar to the size effect that exists in materials – there are special properties that exist when you are extremely small” – Ares Rosakis, chair, Division of Engineering and Applied Science.

When it comes to the best university in the world, it’s clear that size matters. Or rather, that it doesn’t; the California Institute of Technology manages to scoop the top spot in the Small Universities ranking and the THE World University Rankings 2015-16, in spite of having only 2,243 students in total. In fact, out of all 20 universities in the ranking, Caltech is the second smallest.

The only subject area Caltech does not cover is medicine, otherwise it researches and teaches across the science-humanities spectrum, perhaps surprisingly given that “technology” features so prominently in the university name.

Due to the small numbers of student and faculty, interdisciplinary collaboration is encouraged at Caltech in a way that might never happen at larger institutions with well-defined departments.

Ares Rosakis, chair of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, explained: “How can I compete with an excellent place like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology? We have to have engineers interact with all of the sciences and vice versa – it is a matter of survival. We don’t have the breadth to do things in a big way unless they interact.”

At Caltech, like at other small campuses, much of the academic interaction happens informally, in coffee shops or in casual conversations, after having run into someone you know.

Read more about what makes Caltech exceptional in “Secrets of the world’s number one university”.

2. École Normale Supérieure, France

Based in the centre of Paris, the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) benefits from both a small community environment and close connections with other larger universities in the city. Students say that this combination allows them to perfectly integrate university life with all the exciting events and people in Paris.

ENS has just 2,400 students and teaches all subjects save for medicine and engineering and technology. The focus is on a personalised, focused curriculum, where schedules are altered according to students’ needs. There’s a system of feedback for students to tell teachers their opinions.

Valentin Melot, a mathematics undergraduate, says: “All the students and teachers in my department have tea together once a week in a friendly atmosphere.”

Similarly, Aude Untersee, a geosciences student, explains: “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.”

As is common in the grandes écoles system, there’s a strong emphasis on work experience. The difference at ENS is that the small community and external network offers more not less opportunity for professional projects and experience, as each student is guided by mentors who have their own close connections with alumni and other professionals.

Read Aude's and Valentin’s account of student life at ENS here.

3. École Polytechnique, France

École Polytechnique is one of only three universities in the ranking that does not teach arts and humanities subjects, but what it does teach, it teaches extremely well – coming in just outside the top 100 at position 101 in the overall THE World University Rankings, and in the top 50 for both physical sciences and engineering.

The university, located in Palaiseau just outside Paris, is well known as one of the most competitive universities in France. The 2,429 currently enrolled students are among the brightest young scientists in the country.

Students at small universities generally report close contact with and attention from their teachers, but at École Polytechnique is one of only five university in the small universities ranking that has fewer than five students for every member of staff at the university.

Gustave Ronteix, an engineering student, was surprised to find that École Polytechnique defied its small size to offer a huge range of extracurricular activities, including skiing, sushi-making, wine-tasting and volunteering.

He says: “You get to know nearly everybody on campus and there are lots of traditions that emphasise solidarity among students.

This also stems from the ‘village atmosphere’ on campus (internationals beware, École Polytechnique is sadly not located in the middle of the Quartier latin, but in the midst of the Plateau de Saclay, about 20 minutes by train from Paris). This means that we have open access to an incredible amount of sports infrastructures and facilities. And our relative isolation also means that there is a very comfy ‘village feeling’. It is also very safe, people often leave their rooms with their doors wide open, and wherever you go you’ll see familiar faces.”

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

This South Korean institution is Asia’s top entry in the small universities ranking, and also featured at number 116 in the THE World University Rankings.

The university was directly modelled on Caltech, designed with a low student-to-faculty ratio, a greater proportion of graduate students to undergraduates, on-campus housing and a high-quality campus environment. 

And this approach certainly seems to have worked, suggesting that both Caltech and POSTECH have found an optimal mix of characteristics that can turn a small and relatively young university into an international powerhouse.

According to two current students, the social life, relationships with academics and professional opportunities all benefit from the small size of the university.

Eunseo Kim, a mechanical engineering student, explains in her blog: “It is much easier to make friends at POSTECH. I heard that at other (big) universities you hardly get to know people outside your department/faculty. Here, we know pretty much everyone in the same class; I would recognize more than 80 per cent in my class and 20 per cent in the whole student population. As we have a small student body, students often share mutual friends and are connected in one way or another. More than anything, the university has a sense of intimacy and connection throughout campus. Hardly any student is left out of the circle.”

Seung Wook Kim, a computer sciences student, had the choice to go to a larger university in Hong Kong or the UK, but ultimately chose POSTECH because he felt that it would be better for him to be a big fish in a small pond.

He writes: “Being a big dreamer and yearning to be an entrepreneur, I chose POSTECH because I believed that I could make the best (or the most) difference here, thanks to its size. I was certain that POSTECH would have many different types of students just like other big universities do, just fewer in number. It occurred to me that it would be much easier but equally fulfilling to spread my thoughts and ideas in POSTECH, a small but impressive university.”

Read the rest of the blog by Eunseo and Seung here.

5. École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, France

Not to be confused with ENS in Paris, ENS Lyon is in fact the smallest university in the ranking with only 2,218 students in total, yet still taking a top 250 position in the THE World University Rankings.

6. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden

In a sense, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) is a specialist institution, even though it includes all subjects except (human) medicine on its curriculum. Just like ENS Lyon, the university can boast one member of staff for just under five students, and makes the top 250 of the THE World University Rankings.

The already small student community of fewer than 4,000 people are further dispersed across five campuses across Sweden – some of which are in city centres and some in large parks. The main campus is in Uppsala, the fourth largest city in the country.

While the university is far from the largest in the ranking, it did award the highest number of undergraduate degrees last year: more than 1,000 or more than one-quarter of all full-time students.

Robin Meijer, a current student at the Alnarp campus, reflects on SLU’s unique features in his blog. He says: “What makes this school so special, if you ask me, is the ease at which you feel at home.

“Perhaps this has to do with the size of the university? Perhaps not. But knowing that each and every day you’ll be meeting friendly and familiar faces, students and teachers alike, well it’s easy to get comfortable. So comfortable, in fact, I heard that the greatest threat of studying at SLU Alnarp is that you’ll end up staying!”

Read more from Robin here.

7. Oregon Health & Science University, United States

Amazingly, Oregon Health & Science University has just over one student per staff member, despite having almost 3,000 students in total across its schools.

The university functions as an academic medical centre, teaching and researching across all subjects except arts and humanities.

Angelina Pham, a first-year student in the School of Nursing, originally from Hawaii, feels that each cohort of students is carefully selected to generate a cohesive family in which collaboration is preferred to competition.

She says: “It is quite comforting to be able to walk through the halls of OHSU and be greeted with familiar faces and kind smiles; as an island girl, it makes my transition to the mainland not as intimidating and so much easier. The smaller university setting provides the opportunity for the cultivation of genuine relationships between the instructors and their students.”

Angelina has shared her story in a blog here.

8. Koç University, Turkey

As one of the larger institutions in the small ranking, it is perhaps unsurprising that Koç University is also one of only three to teach and research across all six subjects.

It was founded in Istanbul just 23 years ago by the Vehbi Koç Foundation, and has made an impressive impact in this short time, securing a place in the top 300 of the THE World University Rankings.

9. University of Alaska Fairbanks, United States

The University of Alaska Fairbanks is the flagship campus of the University of Alaska system, and focuses on agricultural and environmental development.

Just under 4,000 students attend the university, with many living on campus. In addition to renowned science programmes, the fine arts complex and the art department provide artistic activities and programmes, including a concert hall and student gallery.

10. Sabancı University, Turkey

Another private and young university in Istanbul, Sabancı University is home to just 2,739 students, tiny compared even with its Turkish counterpart in this ranking.

However, the university has one of the highest ratios of students to teachers out of all 20 universities: almost 16 students for every teacher. Attending the institution may provide a community experience, but you might not develop the same close connections with teachers as would be expected at other tiny universities.

11. University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland

The University of Neuchâtel is our fourth and final French-speaking institution in the ranking, and the only one outside France.

Its 4,358 students are taught across all subjects except medicine, with just under half of those within the Arts and Humanities faculty.

Current student Alex Lussignoli has found that the small size of the student body has resulted in closer relationships between peers and between students and their teachers.

He says: “This ease of contact makes university life more pleasant and easier to handle during tougher times, for example, during an exam session. Helping each other becomes easier as well – you can always find someone to pass their course notes along or to organise a study group. The small size of classes allows us to better interact with professors, since there’s always the possibility to ask questions during class, or obtain additional information afterwards. Classes really are interactive – something that would be unimaginable in a big university. Moreover, both academic and administrative staff are helpful and easily available via email.”

Read more about student life at theUniversity of Neuchâtel here.

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

Don’t let the name mislead you; Tokyo Medical and Dental University is another university that includes all six subject areas on its curriculum, although each course will address clinical or medical topics.

It’s the second-highest Asian university in the ranking and has one teacher for every three of its 2,872 students.

Similarly to students at the French universities, Chihiro Mano, a fifth-year medical student, feels that the small student population has allowed her to work closely with teachers.

She adds: “When I entered my university, I thought it would be a little bit boring studying at a ‘small’ university, to be honest. The reality was totally different. Being a student at a small medical university is amazing. I met a lot of great friends, not only in the medical field but also in the dental and nursing fields, became very close to my teachers and gained a lot of experience in research and clinical studies.”

Read more about studying at a small Japanese university in Chihiro's blog.

13. National Yang-Ming University, Taiwan

Taiwan’s sole entry in the ranking, National Yang-Ming University, is something of an anomaly; it’s one of the largest universities in the ranking with 4,496 students, but awarded only 196 undergraduate degrees last year, fewer than all other universities in the ranking but one.

The university specialises in medicine and life sciences, and celebrated its 30-year anniversary in 2015.

14. Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati, India

This university was the sixth Indian Institute of Technology created by the government, and is based in Assam.

Being primarily focused on engineering and technology, the university does not teach social sciences or medicine, although it does offer some arts and humanities courses for its student body of nearly 5,000.

Although small, the university has developed quickly and encouraged an outward-looking attitude. In a comment written collectively by heads of departments, the faculty explain: “Perhaps, the magic of the mountains and the bend in the majestic Brahmaputra River has attracted a critical mass of young gifted students and a team of dedicated faculty and staff members to come together in galvanizing this success story in Guwahati.”

The community environment has also encouraged alumni to return to their alma mater and become teachers, which as Dr Ankit Garg, assistant professor at the department of civil engineering, suggests, contributes to the strong academic credentials of the place.

Read a blog from a student at IIT Guwahati here.

15. University of Tulsa, United States

For a small university, it is particularly impressive that the University of Tulsa manages to attract some world-renowned academics to its Gothic halls in Oklahoma.

All six subjects, including medicine, are covered in various departments, and the university is well known across clinical, arts and science subjects.

In total, there are 4,597 students at the University of Tulsa; in the small universities rankings, only both Indian universities have more students.

16. Yokohama City University, Japan

The university itself may be small by global standards, but it sits in a large metropolis in Japan.

Not to be confused with Yokohama City University has only 4,122 students, and fewer than four students for every teacher.

The institution has only two faculties, but manages to attract a significant number of international students: 3 per cent.

17. Florida Institute of Technology, United States

The final university in the US that features in the ranking, the Florida Institute of Technology houses many of its 4,408 students on a residential campus and technology research park.

The academic emphasis is on engineering, technology and aviation, and the only subject not offered at all is medicine.

Students at the Florida Institute of Technology generally see the school as offering more opportunity for social connections, extracurricular activities, professional growth and adventure than bigger universities.

Aaron Martes, a forensic psychology student, explains: “When the entire campus becomes your family, you learn about the numerous opportunities available to all students beyond studying. Whether your interest is dancing, scuba-diving or surfing, there are numerous clubs and organisations out there. In other words, a smaller institution offers you a greater opportunity to incorporate the things you are passionate about in addition to your studies. I’ve had the good fortune to travel to both surfing national championships and leadership development institutes, all thanks to Florida Tech.”

Kevin Hudgins, who dreams of becoming an astronaut, thinks that the Florida Institute of Technology is the ideal place to develop the right mindset for his future. Similarly, he feels that a small campus fosters the right environment for international students.

He says: “Class sizes are small. Living in a different country is intimidating. There is no doubt that international students feel more comfortable learning in smaller classes. As a domestic student, I can also learn about my classmates and about the many countries they represent in these smaller groups. Students who learn together form teams together. Boulders are not moved individually, but with teamwork!”

Read more from the Florida Tech students in their blog.

18. Savitribai Phule Pune University, India

Savitribai Phule Pune University is the largest university in the small ranking, coming in just under the 5,000 student cut-off with 4,858 students in total.

Interestingly, almost all of these students are postgraduates; just 29 undergraduates were awarded degrees last year. In comparison, 1,583 masters and 290 doctorates were awarded. Less than 2 per cent of the degrees awarded were to undergraduates.

The university is named after Savitribai Phule, a social reformer and women’s rights activist who contributed to the empowerment of women through education.

19. National University of Science and Technology (MISiS), Russia

MISiS was founded as a mining academy and to this day is a leading institution in the study of steel and other metals.

The university itself is small, but not that small. As it turns out, 4,441 students from Russia and beyond have chosen to attend the specialist institution.

In spite of the primary focus on mining and metals, students can take courses in the humanities and social sciences, but engineering and physical sciences are what the university truly excels at.

International student Dorcas Obuobi-Donkor says: “NUST MISiS has given me – so far, and I know that there is more in store for me – knowledge both theoretical and practical. I get to do presentations, interact with people from different cultures, so I think it’s a great opportunity. They are not just interested in pushing knowledge into my head, they are interested in me using it.”

20. Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, Japan

Our final university in the ranking is another based in Tokyo, with a different focus – this time on marine science.

For this reason the university does not offer arts and humanities or medicine courses, although within marine science the 2,597 students are enrolled on degrees in the physical sciences, life sciences and social sciences.

Unsurprisingly, the Shinagawa Campus in Minato, Tokyo, which has been the university base since 1957, is located right along the waterfront.

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