Rethinking Universities and Research to be competitive in the knowledge economy

The good news is that 40% of Italian universities are among the 1000 best in the world. But the transformations of the economy that have taken place in the last 40 years have been great and our universities are struggling to adapt. Today, the knowledge economy confronts us with the need for a new project for university education.

Alumnus Roger Abravanel, author of Aristocrazia 2.0, a new elite to save Italy (Solferino editions), in his book describes the need for a shift towards a project for the enhancement of a mass meritocracy, which meets the desire of young people to improve and improve their social condition through university studies to access the so-called "high value jobs". In the book, the writer analyzes and tells how the problem of relaunching the Italian economy after the pandemic crisis appears particularly complex and the university system plays a key role in this complexity. Millions of young people today know that a degree from an excellent university is the passport to access the best opportunities for professional growth. These young people, who will become the best scientists, graduates and managers, represent a vital resource for the country.

The themes of the book are discussed at a live event at Politecnico di Milano between the author Roger Abravanel (Director Emeritus McKinsey, advisor and essayist), the rector Ferruccio Resta, the president Alumni Politecnico di Milano Enrico Zio and the Alumni Paolo Bertoluzzo (CEO Nexi), Elena Bottinelli (AD IRCCS San Raffaele Hospital and IRCCS Galeazzi Orthopedic Institute) and Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli (The Edgar L. and Harold H. Buttner Chair of EECS, University of California, Berkeley).

"Why are Italian universities lagging behind?", Is Abravanel's starting question, who in the book talks about the necessary difference between teaching universities and research universities, inviting a comparison with the market model of American universities, with a consequent rethinking of the relationship between public and private financing. The debate comments on a benchmark published in the essay, in which the author compares the Polytechnic, Imperial College and ETH. The difference in access to funding stands out, 467 million euros per year against over 1000 of competitors, and in the relationship between "tenured" teachers, that is, ordinary, young researchers and students.

"At the Politecnico, the per capita investment per single student, each year, is about 10 thousand euros - comments the Rector Ferruccio Resta. In the schools being compared, we are talking about figures of around 80 thousand euros per year ". It is a starting point to keep in mind “without”, adds the Rector, “becoming an alibi”. But it is on the relationship between tenured, researchers and students that the debate focuses in particular, seeking a mediation between economic sustainability, social role and the role of innovation engine of the Polytechnic and the university system as a whole. And on this the rector adds: "Italy has a primacy in the ability of its researchers to attract per capita funds for research, both from Europe and from businesses". An important development lever is therefore to increase investments in young researchers, comments Resta: "Since 2017 we have invested a large part of free resources on this, increasing the number of doctoral students by 50% and that of researchers by 25%", and concludes opening the discussion on some possible structural reforms, in particular that of increasing the autonomy of universities in the management of funding and that of opening up more and more to international alliances.

The importance of young people, and in particular of researchers, is a key topic of the debate. "Focusing on researchers of the highest level is the way to create a virtuous ecosystem" comments Bottinelli, "so that research and innovation can be accelerated from the contamination between different professionals".

Sangiovanni-Vincentelli emphasizes the importance of people, capable of generating ideas. Human capital is the real engine capable of innovating, understanding and accompanying the development process from universities to businesses, which, for their part, feed the research system with new problems and new questions. He also talks about cross-fertilization, referring to the mobility of researchers in American universities and in the rest of the world, adding that "it is the ecosystem that counts: without large universities, without the proximity of large companies, SMEs and startups, there is no development".

In the book, Abravanel proposes a long-term program to make Italian universities less and less dependent on public funding, while emphasizing the importance of continuing to guarantee the right to education. Bertoluzzo comments: "the diversification between teaching universities and research universities can really be a way to recompose the dichotomy between the need to have many, good, graduates to be included in the world of work but at the same time excellent researchers", who feed ideas into the system research and innovation. In emphasizing once again the importance of the right to study for all, central to not stopping the social elevator, Bertoluzzo focuses on the importance of creating a system between teaching and research universities. “It is difficult to separate the two missions: we must prevent these two worlds from drifting apart, there must be mutual interaction. And also interaction with the business world. Proximity is essential to prevent the university from taking a path that takes it away from what the country needs, and vice versa, businesses need to be close to the university "

The Rector concludes: "We must have the courage to enhance the vocations, relations with the territory, and the strengths of each university”