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“I don’t care where our students and faculty come from,” famously noted EPFL’s former president, Patrick Aebischer, leading up to a Swiss-wide referendum in 2014 on restricting immigration by quotas. They can come from India, Canada, China, the United States, Germany or anywhere else in the world, he added. “What matters is that Switzerland gets the best. This is the only way for us to stay ahead.”
EPFL (École Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne) traces its history back to 1853 and the creation of Lausanne’s Ecole Spéciale. The original school had a class of 11 students and a curriculum lasting only two years. It had been inspired by the École Centrale of Paris. The idea was to create a specialized school that would produce engineers at a superior level and the standards were extremely demanding from the start.
In 1869, the school merged with the Academy of Lausanne, which grew into the University of Lausanne in 1890. By 1944, its name had been changed to the École Polytechnique de l’Université de Lausanne. In 1969, a federal reorganization of Swiss research capabilities, boosted EPFL to national status as one of Switzerland’s two federal institutes of technology. The other is ETH Zurich (the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich),
Both schools are dedicated to expanding the limits of cutting edge technological innovation. ETH, which counted Albert Einstein and Wilhelm Röntgen as students, has been associated with at least 21 Nobel Prizes. In 1991, EPFL launched its Science Park, operating from three campus buildings in order to help innovative entrepreneurial companies develop practical, real-life applications of scientific breakthroughs.
The model was similar to that followed by other leading high-tech institutions, notably the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to which EPFL is frequently compared. In 2002, EPFL’s departments were transformed into full-fledged faculties and the University of Lausanne’s School of Life Sciences was incorporated into EPFL, which collaborates closely with both the Universities of Lausanne and Geneva. Today, EPFL, which operates with English as a principal language, counts more than 10,000 students, offers free online courses ranging from astrophysics to molecular biology, and is rated as one of the world’s top institutions specializing in technology. Nearly 60 per cent of the students are international, a fact that contributes to making both EPFL and Lausanne a leading world centre for cutting edge research.
Furthermore, as part of the so-called “International Geneva” community, which includes United Nations agencies and hundreds of non-governmental organizations, think tanks and academic institutions, EPFL – together with its sister establishment ETH in Zurich – has the potential for asserting itself as a key scientific and innovations’ player both in the region and on the global stage. This was specifically recognized by Michael Moller, the Danish former head of the UN in Geneva, who stressed EPFL’s importance as a planetary leader.