University takes over the main role

Conte at the Polytechnic of Milan

Finally, with the law-decree “Rilancio”, important measures have been taken to support the university and research. The current crisis situation also involves the university sector for which a decrease in registrations for the next year is estimated from 10% in the best scenario to 20% in the worst case. This crisis threatens to worsen the underfunding situation which Italian universities have been subject to for more than 10 years. However, it must be recognized that the emergency was also a cause for great changes: in the matter of a few weeks, all teaching activities in universities (classes, exams, seminars…) were all transferred to digital platforms allowing students to not let this semester go to waste. In this respect, university is one of the public sectors that has certainly reacted better to this crisis, taking advantage of the situation to improve itself and acquire new skills ( precisely regarding online instruction and its possible future developments).

Following the political debate of these days, I ask myself: what role does university play today? Everything is covered: from holiday bonuses to a fixed price for masks, but university is the great forgotten area. That’s probably because university students are the only ones interested in universities. It almost seems that university is reduced, according to the public opinion, merely to a provider of information. Yet, after all, if we stop for a moment and think about it, I think it is clear to everyone how fundamental research is especially in a moment of crisis like this. It is research that will allow us to find a vaccine, soon hopefully. Researchers are still the ones who, at San Matteo hospital in Pavia are experimenting a possible cure with plasma from recovered patients. Beyond medicine, we can also think about the skills that our Politecnico is putting in service of the community by certifying materials for masks or producing sanitizing liquid. Universities are increasingly proving to be an engine capable of giving a new boost to our country, a place where the challenges of the present are taken up and where young people are given all the skills and knowledge necessary to be able to respond to it.

Going back to the latest “DL”, it seems to me that the importance that university has for  Italy’s future has become clear to our government. 1.4 billion euros have been allocated for the university sector and in particular almost 300 million in support of the right to study scholarships. It is certainly a significant maneuver: Minister Gualtieri called it “the greatest funding in history for universities and research, to finance our tomorrow and not just the present”. I am very struck by this statement because it denotes a renewed focus on education intended as an investment in the future of our country so that government action does not simply boil down to trying to plug holes in the present. Mind you, in this emergency situation it is essential to think about short term and many things can still be done, but investing in university is equally important because it is the first step required to start building again.

Many commentators predict that we will emerge somewhat changed from this emergency. I am confident that universities will be able to come out stronger from this crisis, having regained its leading role. This maneuver is significant but cannot be a one-off intervention, we need to change our paradigm and continue investing in education, in the future, in a structured and continuous way. Time will tell us if the Minister’s statement was pure rhetorics or it actually indicated a sincere intention to “finance our tomorrow”.

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