Innovation needs education

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Seventeen Italian universities have been included in the global universities performance table. The list, created by Times Higher Education, has been drawn up after a careful evaluation of university core missions: teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.

The highest Italian rank is the 63 position, achieved by Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa but, when considering the 182 European universities, Italy has reached the 15th position. Some European countries have been cited several times in this list, while others are never mentioned. In Europe, the gap between the economically strongest nations that are able to invest in higher education and the poorest ones characterised by relevant investments reduction, is growing more and more.

In this context, the European University Association (EUA), the higher education community in Europe, has arisen with the precise aim to sustain the university development at national level, but also to enhance the general quality of European universities. Innovation, internationalization and sustainability are the main goals of EUA. And on 9 and 10 October 2014, the University of Bergamo will host the EUA funding forum, a meeting created to design strategies for efficient and sustainable funding for the European higher education.

University and the possibility to draw the future society

While the 2012 Bucharest Declaration established that “higher education should be at the heart of our efforts to overcome the crisis”, Europe has been undergoing a financial crisis that undermined the university capacity to adequate funding.
Moreover, the university challenge of cheer up the economic fate of Europe is also strictly related to demographic trends. Effectively, it has been estimated that, within 2050, the 20-24 years old population will undergo a reduction of 24 percent.

“Taking into account these issues”, said Stefano Paleari, dean of Bergamo University and EUA member, “we can distinguish two different kinds of universities: an education able to grow high skills workers, because future society needs such figures, even if they will represent only the 1 percent of population; and a system of middle quality, accessible to the entire community”. In front of these two trends, a perfect equilibrium would be revolutionary. “In this context, the political challenge is to compare the university of excellence with the international higher education institutes”, Paleari suggested. “But at the same time, it is necessary to take care of the middle level universities, in order to avoid social segregation”.

This second challenge concerns the welfare state and the demographic changes. In comparison to American universities, the Europeans ones are cheaper, but now it is time for a mandatory consideration of higher education sustainability. “In Europe, and mainly in Italian society, we need solidarity and individual responsibility, if we do not want to fall into failure”, Paleari said. “In effect, the current university risk is to invest in talented young, destined to work abroad and to come back to their country during the old age, when they need assistance”. 

Italian university and the innovation challenge

In order to acquire the right equilibrium between responsibility and social attention, the Italian universities need flexibility. While during these years the Italian universities have faced the challenge of reaching the European standards with MOOCs, English courses and higher students mobility, the secret to offer an attractive context is to differentiate the academic proposals. “In order to perform this real innovation, we need more academics at our disposal”, said Paleari. In fact, while the ratio between academics and students in the first 100 European universities is one out to seven, in Italy there are one out of 30 university lecturers. “Moreover, the universities need a more intense mobility”, Paleari continues. “And this may also be an opportunity of employment creation. In fact, during this period an innovation without a real structural change has been realized”.

Data analysis, information management, and higher institution fees advice could be valid means to promise vivacity in academic framework. Motivation, recruitment and engagement are at the basis of system improvement. “And this does not mean privatization: Austria and Japan, for instance, have applied flexibility to university, maintain public funds”, Paleari assured. “We need to rethink the way to work and interact within the university”. Moreover, innovation has to push through young researchers: “money got from expenses reduction have to be invested in young researchers. Inclusion is mandatory,” concluded Paleari. In conclusion, Italy does not have an a priori gap in comparison with other European countries: Italy does not lack the will in taking on innovation challenge.

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