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Trend 12 October Oct 2020 0902 12 October 2020

Blended courses and funding (for researchers too): it’s back to university in Italy

Attendance in shifts and seat reservations via app, antibody tests and extra resources to prevent a drop in enrolments: it’s back to university with many issues still unsolved but a brand-new mindset

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Six months after they were forced to close, schools and now universities are once again opening their doors. Unlike other educational institutions, universities were already more advanced in providing remote learning when the lockdown was imposed, and within a few days or weeks, most universities had introduced online courses and exams. According to the latest report by Almalaurea (an inter-university consortium), 74.5% of students kept up with their lectures, 40% took exams and just 2% of classes were postponed or cancelled.

First schools and now universities are opening their doors again with strict rules on hygiene and social distancing. For the time being, it will not be possible for all students to go back to their lecture halls: capacity is limited to 50% and first-year students are prioritized when it comes to attending lectures in person. For all the others, courses will be a blend between online and in person attendance and students can reserve their slot at a lecture via an app. At some universities such as Milan, students can voluntarily pick up a rapid finger-prick kit to test themselves for COVID-19 antibodies and take part in a survey to gauge the spread of infection.

The need to limit the spread of infection has also impacted the number of students enrolling at Italy’s universities. At the start of the new academic year, the biggest headache for the Minister for Universities, Gaetano Manfredi, was the risk of a sudden drop in enrolments which, according to some forecasts, could fall by up to 20%. Given the recession caused by the coronavirus crisis and the high degree of uncertainty about the future, many families are struggling financially and may not be able to afford to send their children to university.

In actual fact, according to the latest figures from the universities of Bologna, Parma, Cosenza, Catania and Palermo, the number of enrolments is promising. This is especially true in the south: the minister himself has said that enrolments in the Mezzogiorno are “up by 5-10%” and are likely to increase. This is a new trend given that traditionally many students moved north to attend university, but given the risks related to the pandemic, they now prefer to stay in their home regions, thus boosting the number of students in southern universities.

To take advantage of the resources made available via the Recovery Fund, the Ministry has announced a budget of 15 billion euro for universities and research

There are also more subjects on offer: 200 more degree courses have been introduced in engineering, biotechnology and medicine with a focus on technical, scientific and health aspects. According to the figures provided by universities, the number of bachelor’s degree courses has increased to 2,329, master’s to 2,281, and so-called single cycle degrees to 325.

Considerable efforts have been made to prevent a steep fall in enrolments and to guarantee the right to education. Funds have been allocated to provide additional financial support to students and make a university education more accessible. In its May ‘Relaunch Decree’ the government set aside 290 million euro for universities with the goal of also increasing student scholarships and discounts on fees (the so-called ‘no tax area’ - or tax free threshold - has been raised from 13,000 to 20,000 euro). A further 62 million (plus an additional 50 million allocated through the ‘Cura Italia Decree’) has been allocated to guarantee access to remote learning (including the purchase of devices) while the sum of 165 million has been earmarked to support the right to education.

Resources are also available for researchers: more than 3,000 additional research posts will become available as of 2021 and when added to the previous figure of 1607, this brings the total to almost 5,000. Between now and 2022, a further 550 million euro will be added to the fund for investment in scientific and technological research (FIRST) and 300 million over the same period for Italy’s standard fund for universities.

It does not end there: to take advantage of the resources made available via the Recovery Fund, the Universities Minister has announced a budget of 15 billion euro for universities and research. An ambitious but very necessary move at a time when education and research have proved to be the key sectors where investments should be made to allow Italy to build its future. Over the years, both schools and universities in Italy have suffered from a lack of investment, which has pushed them into the lower ranks in Europe in terms of the number of graduates (27.6% of young people aged between 30 and 34 compared to the European average of 40.3%) and research posts. Italy also falls behind on the number of university lecturers with a decrease of almost 15% between 2008 and 2017 according to the latest report from the ANVUR (national agency for the evaluation of Universities and Research Institutes).

Each student who decides to end their education and does not enrol at university represents a failure for our country.

Ivano Dionigi, president of Almalaurea

For all these reasons, institutions such as Almalaurea have rung alarm bells, underlining the need to make a university education the keystone for future growth. If this does not happen, those long-standing gaps - where women and southern areas of the country are traditionally at a disadvantage - are likely to widen further and create even greater inequality.

These are long-term issues, but they are also very real and current with considerable repercussions on other aspects of life. According to a study by the portal Skuola.net involving 2,000 students who studied away from home, almost one student in five will leave the city they have moved to and return to their hometown. The result: at the end of the summer, university cities had emptied of young people, and in cities like Milan there was 290% more rented accommodation available, even though prices were basically unaffected. This is an issue raised by Giuseppe Sala together with the mayors of other cities. “There’s no point in being nostalgic. Milan’s recovery will depend on young people, foreigners and solidarity. Let’s try to be clear which parts of our population will be fundamental to bring about change,” he has said.

Minister Manfredi has promised that a portion of the resources provided by the ‘Recovery Fund’ “will favour the right to an education”. Foresight will be necessary. “We need a solid investment plan to ensure all young people have the right to an education. We have to react to the very real prospect of failure. Each student who decides to end their education and does not enrol at university represents a failure for our country” is the view of Ivano Dionigi, president of Almalaurea. Rather than the right to an education, we could call it the right to a future.

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