‘Eventually, everything turned out fine’: an Italian university reflects

Italian universities were the first to react to the pandemic, and have found a way to thrive, explains the head of one Milan institute

The huge and unimaginable impact of Covid-19 in our daily lives will not be so easy to forget, even in a few years’ time.

In the past few months, it has been repeatedly said that 2020 would have been a tragic time for Italian universities – one characterised by crisis, escape and fear. Luckily, our system did not collapse in line with the catastrophic predictions. Italian universities stumbled but quickly found a way to get back on track, and, most importantly, revolutionise the system in a way to yield even better results than pre-Covid times – securing an increase of 7.6% of admissions nationwide for the 2020/2021 academic year.

Forced to lead

Similarly to the loss the university system suffered as a consequence of the 2008 global economic crisis, which caused 20% fewer enrolments in Italy, the spread of coronavirus last February threatened once again a drop in the number of applicants. A similar scenario represented a risk for a country still registering a number of graduates below Europe’s average. From an industry’s point of view, the fear was that low-income families would yet again give up on higher education because of the economic risks of an unprecedented crisis. Luckily, that was not the case. As devastating and severe as this emergency might be, it actually highlighted the importance of educational institutions as basic elements of social stability. 

We faced an unexpected crisis that required immediate attention and no other establishment to turn for guidance

Italy was the first country in Europe to be impacted by coronavirus, with Milan specifically being the hardest hit city. We faced an unexpected crisis that required immediate attention and no other establishment to turn for guidance. 

At Politecnico di Milano we were conscious that our response not only had to be rapid, but also had to prioritise both the wellbeing and learning path of our students. Within just a couple of weeks, we were able to successfully turn our entire teaching system into virtual classes. No model was available at that time. It was a kind of ‘black swan’ no one could imagine. Universities were caught unguarded. 

We invested €3 million in digital equipment, providing more than 300 classrooms with video tracking and streaming systems

In a couple of weeks, Politecnico made it possible for 45,000 students to attend all lessons remotely. Suffice it to say that, from March to December 2020, 363,232 exams have regularly taken place and 11,976 students were able to graduate. We invested €3 million in digital equipment, providing more than 300 classrooms with video tracking and streaming systems. We increased the number of scholarships and grants to reduce tuitions: 10,000 students are now tax exempt. The number of enrolments rose (+3% for engineering), especially from abroad (+10%). Eventually, everything turned out fine.

Politecnico di Milano

A time to plan  

With news of vaccinations taking place, now is the time to look ahead and plan for the future. When I say this, I am not referring to immediate solutions or asking oneself what kind of faculties and courses will attract more students as a reaction to the pandemic. 

Covid-19 has sped up the very much needed digitalisation process in the Italian education system and brought a big opportunity for the world to change the way we teach, learn, work and interact as human beings, thus we must take advantage of it to create a better tomorrow. 

For this reason, we have been working on a post-Covid programme that includes three main points of action: knowledge, relations and system. We are asking ourselves what kind of knowledge will be developed, how are relationships and interactions going to change, and how will the organisation work?

I cannot imagine a future made of screens only

As a leading European university, we are exploring the ways in which human interactions are going to change and how the system will adapt, questioning if we will be able to make digital learning a value for in-presence universities, what will students expect when moving back to campus and how will we leverage on individual needs and attitudes. The report is due in spring 2021. From this preliminary analysis, a deep process of change will start.

Change is on the horizon 

The crisis we are living is forcing every industry to constantly adapt to the evolution of the pandemic. As such, every university will revise their programs, finding new ways to engage students and bringing about new business models. New competitors will come into play in the international scene. Cooperation and confrontation will move to a different level. The wide use of digital tools will bring about not only the transformation of online education, but also targeted academic offers with hybrid paths, mixing remote learning with on campus lectures. 

Though we cannot predict the consequences of this process of transition, we know there are some values and principles we want to protect and foster, such as student’s mobility. I cannot imagine a future made of screens only. Campus services and spaces will change. The way universities interact with the city and the territory will change. Collaboration is going to be essential, both locally and internationally. If there is one lesson we have learned from this pandemic, it is that no one can make it alone.

Ferruccio Resta is rector of Politecnico di Milano, the largest technical university in Italy.

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