School with 163-year history named top ‘young’ university

Lausanne’s federal technology institute EPFL is once again the world’s top young university, according to the London-based Times Higher Education (THE) rankings, published on Wednesday.

School with 163-year history named top 'young' university
EPFL in Lausanne. Photo: Alain Herzog

The high achieving Swiss institution was ranked first out of 150 universities under 50 years old, the second year in a row it has topped the list.

An institution that welcomes 50 percent Swiss students and 50 percent from all over the world, EPFL scored particularly highly for its ‘international outlook’.

THE said EPFL “held on to pole position in the table despite fierce competition from universities in East Asia” including Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which came second and third respectively.

Now in its fifth year, the ranking was “designed to celebrate the achievements of young institutions that have made a big impact on the world stage in years rather than centuries”, said rankings editor Phil Baty.

However, though founded in its current form in 1968, EPFL’s origins as a centre of learning date back more than 160 years, to 1853.

Speaking to The Local, Lionel Pousaz, a spokesman for EPFL, said although by the 1960s the institution was already a respected engineering school, it was “not playing in the same league” as the federal government-funded technology university ETH Zurich.

Recognizing the “political necessity” of providing French-speaking Switzerland with a similar asset, in 1968 it was decided that developing the canton-funded Ecole polytechnique universitaire de Lausanne (EPUL), as it was then known, would be the best way for the region to get ‘its’ ETH.

“What happened in 1968 was much more than a simple change of name and owner. The school’s missions were redefined, its location changed to a new campus, its ambition set to a much higher aim,” Pousaz said.

“From EPUL to EPFL there is a clear continuity, but from another point of view one can’t deny that today’s EPFL really began in 1968.

“I am afraid we will have to live forever with a double birth certificate!”

Pousaz told The Local that maintaining first place in this year's THE rankings was a reflection of being “focused on our mission, which is providing good education, good science and efficient technology transfer.

“Of course we keep an eye on international rankings like any university, but we have never taken any decision in order to get a higher rank.”

Regularly featuring highly in global university lists, in March EPFL was named the 11th best institution in Europe by THE. It is currently ranked 31st in the world overall.

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EXPLAINED: How will the post-lockdown tracing system work in Switzerland?

Given there is no Covid-19 vaccine at the present time, contact tracing is believed to be an effective, though complex, strategy for breaking transmission chains and controlling the spread of disease. How will it work in Switzerland?

EXPLAINED: How will the post-lockdown tracing system work in Switzerland?
Research at EPFL will help establish a tracing system. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

How does the tracking work?

The process involves identifying contaminated people, so that measures can be taken to prevent the spread of infection on to others.

It is all the more important in cases when the sick person has no symptoms and may not even know they are sick.

Once the infected person is identified, efforts are made to locate and test the people they have been in contact with within the past two weeks. If one of those contacts is found to be infected, the investigation starts again.

Trying to find chains of contamination could be a long process.

What are some of the challenges of contact tracing?

In Switzerland, as in many other countries, the challenge is to establish an effective tracking system, while respecting data protection.

Since mobile phones would be used, various technical and legal questions could arise, particularly on the collection and use of data.

In Switzerland, to process this information in the context of the pandemic, either the consent of the individual or an anonymisation of the data is required.

READ MORE: Swiss scientists launch a new app to collect Covid-19 data 

What tools will Switzerland be using for post-confinement contact tracing?

One possibility would be the tracking by GPS of mobile phones, as already implemented in a partnership between the federal government and Swisscom. This method allowed the authorities to monitor the public to see if they complied with the restrictions related to going out and traveling during the Easter holidays. 

But the government is now supporting a brand new project at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and its sister institution, Zurich’s Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETHZ).

Both are working on the so-called D3-PT project, a free downloadable application for mobile phones, which will run on Google’s Android operating system and on Apple’s iOS.

Its goal, according to Edouard Bugnion, professor of computer science at EPFL, is to “break the chain of virus transmission” by identifying new cases and isolating them. If a person is found positive for coronavirus, all the people he has encountered in the previous days will be alerted, so that they can go into quarantine and be tested. 

No exact details or launch date have been released yet, but the Federal Council thinks the D3-PT tracing would work well in Switzerland.

Will this system guarantee privacy?

Until very recently, the two institutions participated in the European research project Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing, bringing together 130 organisations from eight countries.

But EPFL and ETHZ distanced themselves from this project after realising that user data would not be protected, and went on launch the D3-PT system which, they said, would be more “decentralised and transparent”.