Q&A: Ferruccio Resta – rector, Politecnico di Milano

Italian universities were the first in Europe to deal with Covid-19 – now they have €15bn of government funding to spend on their recovery. Julian Owen asks Politecnico di Milano leader Professor Ferruccio Resta what’s on the shopping list, and how to lead in a crisis

Professor Ferruccio Resta is head of the largest technical university in Italy, Politecnico di Milano, and president of the Conference of Italian University Rectors (CRUI). Born in nearby Bergamo in 1968, he entered the university as a student and rose through the ranks of the department of mechanical engineering before assuming the role of rector – the Italian equivalent of vice-chancellor – in 2017. Having successfully led his institution through the pandemic, Prof Resta is now looking to Politecnico di Milano’s future, such as plans to establish a science park and projects focusing on autonomous driving and 5G technology.

What first fired your interest in engineering?

When I was 19 and took my entry test at Politecnico di Milano, I was told engineering was not my cup of tea. I proved them wrong, I guess. Since I became rector, many people asked my advice on the importance of choosing a career. I always say that there is just one thing that I would recommend: follow your instinct and nurture your interests; there are so many possibilities out there. Digitalisation and sustainability are great opportunities, especially for young women, who are still a small percentage when it comes to STEM subjects; there is still a strong bias preventing them from entering a technical or scientific career. Politecnico di Milano is working on gender issues as well as on a ‘passion in action’ catalogue to let students express their talents and provide them with a tailored education.

University is not only a place where you learn notions – it is a place where you learn from other people, where you enjoy interactions and feelings that no digital tool will ever substitute

Not many children say, “When I grow up, I want to be rector of a university.” When did you first think ‘That’s the role for me?’ Is it something you could have imagined when completing your master’s in mechanical engineering at the university?

When I was a child, I did not even know who a rector was and what he did. I loved the sea and dreamt of being a doctor or a biologist. When I took my PhD at Politecnico di Milano, the only certainty I had was that I liked doing research. To me, the beauty of research lies in its impact on society and in teaching. In my case, being a mechanical engineer, it is strictly related to industrial projects. When I was head of department [2007–2016], I found out how to manage a structure comprising more than 350 people, how to develop studies with companies, how to communicate and speak the language of business. Becoming rector was not something I had planned, it was simply the next step, a kind of natural process. Now I am dealing with more than 47,000 students, 1,400 researchers and 1,200 employees. A big responsibility.

Temple of learning: the Politecnico di Milano

 

There was no model of how to respond when the pandemic hit. Although the Politecnico di Milano reacted impressively, moving the entire teaching system into virtual classes within a couple of weeks, presumably you also learned lessons about things you’d do differently next time?

Of course, we were not prepared to face the emergency. Italy was the first country in Europe to deal with the virus and had no model to follow. Nonetheless, there is a kind of creativity and resilience in our DNA, in our culture and tradition, that helped us to find a way out and move on. And yes, there have been many lessons learned. We have become more digital and innovative in teaching. Politecnico di Milano has recently invested €10m in a post-Covid programme, in innovative classrooms and new labs. Our international liaisons have become stronger in Europe. We have been sharing best practice and insights with other universities abroad. All things considered, we have no regrets – we managed to save the semester early in 2020 and no one was left behind. Now, students are coming back on campus for a new academic year. They responded positively to the vaccine and they are slowly regaining their place in society. Being the first to handle the crisis has made us wiser.

How do you account for Italian universities enjoying an increase of 7.6% of admissions for the 2020/2021 academic year, in the midst of the pandemic?

I think this is an extremely positive sign, especially if we take into account the financial difficulties brought by the pandemic to an already fragile economic system. Families have suffered from the loss of jobs and the reduction of savings, thus making it difficult to put money into education. The CRUI, and the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research, were afraid we would experience a decrease in enrolments, as in 2008. Luckily, the measures taken, such as financing more scholarships and expanding the ‘no-tax area’ [tax-free basic allowance], were able to prevent what would otherwise have been serious damage to the country.

I think young people had the impression that this pandemic was somehow stealing their future, and reacted. They wanted to be sure they could plan their life and the best way to do so is a good education, which is eventually perceived as an investment, rather than a cost.

Today, Ferrucio Resta leads the largest technical university in Italy – but as a teenager he was told engineering wasn’t for him

 

The Italian government has allocated €15bn of its portion of the EU’s €200bn pandemic recovery plan to universities. How do you plan to spend your share?

Well, nearly a quarter of the resources are allocated to people and talent development, mainly to researchers, doctoral candidates and research managers. Another 16% goes to students, in the form of scholarships, mentoring and housing grants. A significant amount is also devoted to technology transfer. In fact, almost €6bn is allocated to the creation of new centres for strategic technologies and ecosystems for technological innovation, to boost startups and research projects with a high TRL (technology readiness level). Although Italian research is known for its high standards and number of publications, there is a significant gap when it comes to converting results into economic benefits. That is why, on top of that, €1.5bn will aim to increase the number of industrial PhDs, including €600m for innovative PhD programmes to meet businesses demands in strategic fields.

The figure is almost double the national annual budget allocated to universities. Does this mean you’ll be able to fund initiatives or projects you assumed would only ever remain a dream?

I think the point here is not to look for sticking-plaster solutions or bring back abandoned projects or single initiatives; instead, this is an extraordinary occasion to redesign the system. We need to look ahead, to a systemic approach, where things are planned and interconnected. We need to make the country competitive, not a single university. The crucial challenge lies in ensuring the rapid implementation of the NPRR [National Plan for Recovery and Resilience] in strengthening the bond between academia and industry, in building strong networks between public and private. However, two conditions are necessary: reducing the burden of bureaucracy and maintaining political stability, which is essential to promote national interests.

The university has invested €10m in a post-Covid programme

 

To what degree is it more difficult to collaborate with UK universities post-Brexit, on issues such as research or student exchanges?

Honestly, I think Brexit has been a mistake, placing self-interest before a long-term vision. Instead, we need a cohesive and strong Europe, unified in its core values. We are open to those who believe in this ideal. While Brexit has made things more complicated for both students and visiting professors, restoring exchanges halted by the pandemic and expanding our international faculty are some of our priorities. Nevertheless, there is an issue I am more concerned about. Many prestigious universities, even in the UK, that used to be inaccessible, are now offering online courses that are quite antithetical to traditional education, pushing students in front of a computer rather than sitting in a real classroom. On the contrary, cooperation and interaction are the key to learning.

What is the key to leading a university?

Leading a university, a big one, is quite demanding. Especially in times of pandemic! While there is no single key to being a successful leader, my aim is to keep the community together; to foster common values, to listen to everyone’s ideas and suggestions. My role is that of making a synthesis of their concerns and ambitions. Knowing how to motivate and release everyone’s energy is the secret.

Do you ever miss being able to give fuller focus to your own academic life?

Honestly, I don’t. Being a rector is a temporary position lasting no more than six years. My mandate is going to expire by the end of 2022.

Similarly, do you miss teaching and interaction with students? I would guess staying abreast of student concerns is an important part of the job.

Actually, I have been regularly teaching during these last five years. Keeping in touch with students is essential. We all missed them during the last months. Distance learning has been very helpful, but I am glad they are back on campus now. University is not only a place where you learn notions – it is a place where you learn from other people, where you enjoy interactions and feelings that no digital tool will ever substitute.


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