What do rankings tell us about Engineering at EPFL?

EPFL is one of the most prestigious schools in Europe in the fields of engineering, technology and computer science, according to the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities. In 2011, it was in second place among European universities, behind Cambridge University (UK). How can we explain such a ranking? Is it merited, or just a statistical aberration? Here’s a closer look at what’s happening in EPFL’s School of Engineering, which contributes in a large part to the scientific production that is taken into account in the ranking. 

The Academic Ranking of World Universities, commonly known as the Shanghai ranking, ranked EPFL second in Europe in 2011 (20th in the world), in the field of Engineering, Technology and Computer science. It’s an encouraging result, particularly when one knows that this much anticipated annual ranking, which takes into account nearly 1,200 universities, puts special emphasis on scientific publications and the quality of research. Launched by the Shanghai Jiaotong University in 2003, it draws upon data from the Canadian press agency Thomson Reuters, which compiles information from scientific journals. Three criteria are emphasized in engineering: First, HiCi, or the number of scientists who are the most highly cited in their discipline. After this comes the Pub criterion, or the number of articles indexed in the Science Citation Index-Expanded (SCIE) and Social Science Citation Index (SSCI). And finally, Top: the percentage of articles that are published in the 20% of journals with the highest impact factor in engineering fields. 

Encouraged by these results, STI launched this year a project to gather statistics, in order to conduct its own ranking. The first institute to be examined is Bioengineering, a joint institute between STI and EPFL’s School of Life Sciences. “We established a list of European schools recognized in the field of bioengineering, such as Cambridge and Oxford Universities, the University of Milan, and so on,” explains Natacha Blanc, the STI statistician in charge of the project. Like in the Academic Ranking of World Universities, emphasis is placed on publications and citations. “The preliminary results indicate that STI is favorably positioned in Europe,” she continues, adding that the U.S. institutes will also be taken into account in the ranking.

Source: Shanghai Rankings

But are these good rankings – the World University ranking and the home-made ranking by STI – really an accurate reflection of the school’s standing?

The importance of reputation

It’s hard to say. On the one hand, the Shanghai ranking, for example, is criticized by a portion of the scientific community (external link: Should you believe in the Shanghai ranking?). On the other hand, although the ranking is the most recognized among the various international rankings, there are two other rankings that also occupy an important place in the academic environment, and they don’t rank EPFL’s engineering as highly: the QS World University Rankings, formerly published in collaboration with the Times Higher Education, and the Times Higher Education Rankings.

The QS 2011 places EPFL in 28th place out of 500 universities in its engineering subcategory (5th place in Europe), whereas ETH Zurich occupies 8th place (3rd in Europe). Similarly, the Times Higher Education’s "Engineering & Technology" section ranks EPFL and ETH Zurich at 24th and 7th place, respectively – 6th and 2nd place in the European ranking.

The reason for these differences is that the criteria taken into account in these two rankings are different from those considered by the Shanghai ranking. In the QS ranking, for example, substantial weight (40% and 10% respectively) is given to the institution’s reputation among peers (people working in that academic field) and with employers. These parameters don’t necessarily work in EPFL’s favor, as the figures taken from the QS ranking show, in particular for "Electrical engineering" and "Mechanical, Aeronautical & Manufacturing".  In the Times Higher Education rankings, the “grade” obtained for EPFL’s overall reputation similarly penalized its ranking.

Pascal Marmier, director of the Swissnex office in Boston, shares his opinion of these results: “In the U.S., the university leadership is much more oriented towards Asia, and so students and faculty have less exposure to developments taking place in Europe, and particularly at EPFL.” How can we explain, ETH Zurich’s top ranking, then? “The size of a school can make a difference. EPFL is also much younger, and doesn’t have the long, illustrious history or the relationships between laboratories that ETH Zurich does.” Despite this, Marmier is confident. “EPFL and STI are rapidly earning an excellent reputation. In the circle of decision-makers in universities, the School already has an excellent reputation. It will also earn a reputation in the international business community. The collaborations it has forged with major companies such as Nestlé and Crédit Suisse are evidence of this.”

Interview with an international specialist of education

"It’s tough for students, Swiss and foreign alike, whose parents don’t live in the canton Vaud, because of the high cost of living in Switzerland and the paucity of financial aid available."

François Garçon, a lecturer at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris, has written a book entitled Enquête sur la formation des élites (Investigation into the education of the elite), published by éditions Perrin in 2011. In it, he compares the big universities in the UK, France, the United States and Switzerland.

In what regard is EPFL a good university?

This school has many strengths. First, the Swiss system encourages synergies between the academic community and industry. It’s a collective mentality that doesn’t demonize either businesses or the market. The Swiss ecosystem favors this kind of institution. Second, university professors are recruited on a worldwide basis, which is fundamental. Universities that practice “localism,” as is too often the case in Italy, Spain and even France, find themselves burdened with mediocre professors who do little or no research. Don’t bother looking for these institutions in world university rankings; they’re not going to show up, no matter what clever tricks they invent to get themselves included.

What is EPFL’s image outside Switzerland?

Twenty years ago, in Paris, an EPFL diploma was considered a “Mickey Mouse” affair. French students only enrolled if they failed the entrance examinations for the French engineering schools. Now, many people, including my own son, want to come and study at this school because of its excellent reputation. But it’s tough for students, Swiss and foreign alike, whose parents don’t live in the canton Vaud, because of the high cost of living in Switzerland and the paucity of financial aid available. This is probably the only shortsightedness the Swiss have in terms of higher education.

"France needs 25 Patrick Aebischers."

EPFL is thus making progress...

If it continues like this, it could become the most prominent French-speaking scientific institution in the world. With Patrick Aebischer, a powerful promotional force and a fabulous marketer, at its helm, the school’s international reputation should continue to flourish. France has already taken notice. As I heard a university president say during a dinner at the Montaigne Institute in Paris: “France needs 25 Patrick Aebischers.”

Does that mean that EPFL can be compared to universities like Cambridge, Stanford and Harvard?

No, that’s far-fetched. Those universities have an infinitely larger pool of English speakers to draw from. Switzerland is a small country. In addition, these large Anglo-Saxon universities all have medical schools that help enhance their international scientific visibility, a luxury that EPFL doesn’t have.


Working on multiple fronts

STI thus is making progress, but this momentum must continue, and the school knows it. This is why it has invested a lot of effort over the past few years into improving its reputation, promoting equal opportunity, and emphasizing excellence in both teaching and research.

This strategy is starting to pay off, and success in recruiting is one sign. STI has managed to attract top scientists from the world’s most prestigious institutions, and their work is at the cutting edge of world technology research. Why did they leave universities such as MIT, Brown or Stanford to join EPFL? Some answers can be found in their interviews (click to read).

"STI has the potential to shine at the very top of its chosen disciplines"

Among these recruits is Professor Giovanni De Micheli, who earned a PhD at Berkeley before becoming a full professor in electrical engineering at Stanford. He chose EPFL for the dynamism and the reputation of the School. He nevertheless thinks that more work needs to be done for EPFL to become one of the best universities. "EPFL and Stanford: it is like comparing the new BMW and a Ferrari", he says (read full interview). William Curtin, from Brown University, was freshly hired by EPFL as director of mechanical engineering institute. He guaranties: "I would not have left Brown and joined EPFL if I had felt that EPFL was not comparable to, or better than Brown" (read full interview) As for Andreas Mortensen, he joined EPFL after ten years as a member of the faculty of MIT. According to him, " STI has the potential to shine at the very top of its chosen disciplines" (read full interview). Not to mention Francesco Stellacci (2009) and Nicola Marzari (2011), from MIT; and Dean Demetri Psaltis (2007), from the California Institute of Technology. “The arrival of these professors at EPFL will improve the School’s reputation abroad,” notes Marmier. 

Top young scientists

STI doesn’t just have experienced and prolific senior professors, trained in the world’s best universities, in its faculty ranks. The school also boasts some brilliant scientists who are just starting their careers, such as Volkan Cevher, who received his BSc degree from Bilkent University (Turkey), and his PhD degree from Georgia Institute of Technology (US), before coming to EPFL as a Tenure Track Assistant Professor (PATT). "We are building up our reputation; however, it is not there yet.", he comments (read full interview). For PATT Camille Brès, who earned a Bachelor at McGill University (Canada), before completing a PhD  at Princeton University (US): "EPFL has very much met my expectations: it is a top university in engineering. It has a very dynamic and collaborative research environment" (read full interview). Not to mention Sebastian Maerkl, Georg Fantner and Andreas Burg. Each one joined EPFL after a PhD or postdoc at a top-notch university. (read full interview).

Their provenance is only an indication of the quality of these young scientists: more concrete evidence can be found in their success obtaining research grants, notably ERC starting grants. These grants, awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) to talented scientists with marked potential, are very difficult to obtain (see figure below). They recognize projects that scientists must defend vigorously, first through carefully written and heavily documented proposals, then through oral interviews with panels of experts.  Between 2009 and 2011, STI faculty won eight such grants. In 2009, ERC starting grants were awarded to professors Andras Kis, Holger Frauenrath, Anna Fontcuberta I Morral and Jean-François Molinari (STI/ENAC), in 2010 to professors Aleksandra Radenovic and Stéphanie Lacour, and in 2011 to professors Volkan Cevher and François Gallaire. These grants, which come with up to 2 million Euros in funding, allow the young researchers to work in a more independent manner on projects that could lead to major engineering advances.

Starting  Grants/ Physical Sciences & Engineering

Starting Grants 2009 and 2010/Physical Sciences and Engineering/Higher Education Institutions

Increasing numbers of students

An improving reputation could also be behind increases in the number of students coming from abroad to study engineering at EPFL. After staying flat from 1990 to the start of this century, foreign enrolment at the Bachelor and Master level nearly doubled between 2004 and 2010. It is interesting to note that growth is strongest in the Masters programs – where courses are given in English.

Aiming high

Will the continual efforts made by the School contribute to improving its reputation, and thus EPFL’s position in international rankings? There’s no question about it, says project manager in EPFL’s Office of International Affairs Dimitrios Noukakis, who explains that progress is already evident. “In my job, I regularly participate in many international conferences. A few years ago, very few people knew about EPFL. But now, thanks to the quality of its faculty and researchers, and also thanks to its continuing communications efforts, the visibility of this university is much better. We have an excellent School. Good rankings like these, in general, are not just fortuitous.”

Demetri Psaltis, the dean of STI, concludes: "Improvement of the rankings, particularly those that are based on reputation, takes a long time. One way to accelerate the process is to aim high. It would be wonderful to start seeing EPFL appear in the top 10 engineering schools in the world".

Click to read our professors’ views on the reputation of Engineering at EPFL

Laure-Anne Pessina