The world’s best small universities 2019

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

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 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. Students who studied at small universities based in larger cities said that they appreciated the perks of a more intimate campus while enjoying the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life.

To be eligible for the ranking, universities must appear in THE’s World University Rankings 2019, teach more than four subjects, and have fewer than 5,000 students. 

The average number of students at an institution in the 2019 world’s best small universities ranking is approximately 2,713 – that’s about the same number of passengers as would fit on 45 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 Tokyo. 

Top 20 small universities in the world 2019

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 five 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 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 is one of the most prestigious “grandes écoles” in France and is particularly known for its engineering programmes. 

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 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 leave of absence for creating 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 three 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 since seen many eminent figures pass through it, including poet Giosue Carducci, Nobel Prize winner 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, sciences and political and social sciences. 

A small university steeped in history and culture

6. University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg

The University of Luxembourg just makes it on to the list with a student population of 4,969. 

The university is 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

7. 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

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 des Ponts ParisTech, France

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

The university’s primary focus when it was first founded was to train engineers but now the university has expanded to offer programmes in computer science, mathematics, finance, economics, urban studies and environment and transport engineering. 

10. Jacobs University, Germany

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

The 1,450 students come from more than 110 countries, and the university’s main language of instruction is English. 

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

11. Brighton and Sussex Medical School, United Kingdom 

With fewer than 1,000 students, Brighton and Sussex Medical School is one of the smallest universities to be featured in 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. 

12. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden

There are fewer than 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?

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. Alfaisal University, Saudi Arabia

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

Due to the small size of the university, students can benefit from an 11:1 student to staff ratio and small teaching groups. 

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

=14. 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 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. 

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

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

It has since become an important university for science and technology research. Students are also able to take part in research projects. 

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.”

Students have only been attending the university for about 12 years, but it 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.

18. 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 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.

19. 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?

20. Sabancı University, Turkey

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

The benefit of being a student at Sabancı 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.

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