EPFL holds consultation to limit the growth in Bachelor’s students

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To ensure the quality of its studies, EPFL is today launching a consultation to
To ensure the quality of its studies, EPFL is today launching a consultation to revise the admissions process. ©Alain Herzog

Thanks to its teaching and research excellence, EPFL has become a university of choice, especially for high-school graduates in other countries. However, the growing size of our student body is putting a strain on the quality of the education we can provide. We’ve therefore decided to hold a School-wide consultation, which kicks off today, on a measure that would cap the number of first-year Bachelor’s students admitted each year at 3,000. If adopted, the new measure would be in place for four years and could be renewed if necessary.

EPFL is a victim of its own success. Our Bachelor’s and Master’s student body has more than doubled in 12 years, from 5,283 in 2010 to 10,894 in 2023.

This is creating a number of challenges when it comes to maintaining our high educational standards: our lecture halls are saturated, the student-faculty ratio is on the rise and the workload for our support services has expanded considerably. This also makes it difficult to pursue our project-based learning approach - a hallmark of our degree programs and essential for equipping our students with transferrable skills, such as problem-solving, teamwork, creativity and communication.

To help address this problem, we propose capping the number of first-year Bachelor’s students admitted each year at 3,000. This measure would take effect in 2025 for a four-year period and could be renewed if necessary. Under the ETH Act - the Swiss law governing EPFL as a public-sector university - we’re allowed to limit the number of students admitted with non-Swiss high-school diplomas if we’re facing capacity constraints. To do that, we plan to request approval from the ETH Board, and this consultation is the first step in that process.

The reason is simple: the number of EPFL students with a Swiss high-school diploma has grown 28% since 2010, while the number of EPFL students holding non-Swiss diplomas has shot up 233%. Of the students in the latter category, over 90% come from France.

Why we suggest setting a 3,000 cap

Under the new measure, all applicants with a Swiss high-school diploma would still be accepted without restriction, as required by law. The same holds true for students who must repeat their first year. The remaining spots would be attributed to foreign applicants, ranked according to their final high-school grades, until the 3,000 limit is reached. We estimate the measure would reduce Bachelor’s admissions by around 20%. We’ll review the measure in light of the changes in our student body at the end of each four-year period.

This proposal has been thought out carefully and was designed after two years of analysis and discussions within working groups, including members from AGEPoly and the Teachers’ Council as well as section heads and the vice deans of education.

Pierre Dillenbourg, EPFL’s Associate Vice President for Education, says: "With this temporary measure, we want to return to the student-body size we had in 2020 and make sure we can keep delivering excellence in education, under the best possible learning conditions for our students."

The impact of an excessively large freshman class in our Bachelor’s programs is felt for five years, since many of these freshmen will go on to do a Master’s degree. However, there’s no impact on our PhD programs, where the number of students depends not on how many people apply but rather on the amount of funding available at each research group.

This situation has worsened gradually since 2020. The problem is particularly acute in our large lecture halls (those with over 150 seats), which are often fully occupied. With the large student body, this has led to overbooking. In the fall 2023 semester, some classes would have needed 30% more seats to be able to accommodate all the students. In addition, the faculty-student ratio has fallen by 40% in eight years - a much steeper drop than that seen in other Swiss universities.

The rapid growth of our student body has affected all areas of campus life. We’ve had to expand our on-campus food services and coordinate our class schedules with the University of Lausanne to avoid overcrowding the public transport lines. Not to mention the problem of student housing - in the fall 2023 semester, some students still hadn’t found housing two months after classes had started.

New lecture halls will offer respite

EPFL plans to rent a 200-seat lecture hall in the RTS building after it’s completed in 2025, and the new Esplanade building will have lecture halls offering 1,500 additional seats when it’s completed in 2029. This should help improve things - which is why the measure we propose will be for an initial (yet renewable) term of four years. That said, this additional seating won’t be enough to meet future demand if we don’t take steps now to stem the growth of our student body.

The consultation process will run until 18 March. If the outcome is favorable, we’ll submit a proposal to the ETH Board, which should issue its decision in the second half of the year.