Is a glorious past a trap or a springboard?
This is the question Italians should ask themselves as they contemplate an otherwise uncertain future.
Bologna, home of the oldest University in the world, is emblematic of this juncture. The University of Bologna is the flagship of Italian higher education, rated the best in Italy, but ironically this is the limit of her reach. The University’s reputation has faded over the centuries, and today the University’s prestige is hardly recognized beyond the borders of the Italian peninsula. The worldwide authority, Times Higher Education – a sort of Standard & Poors of the Education economy – in its latest ranking put Bologna and other top Italian Universities in the range between 226th and 250th place. The review, its latest iteration spanning 2010 to 2012, is Anglo-American oriented, with 11 of the top 14 Universities listed being American; the other three are British. The three main criteria at the heart of the ranking are teaching, research, citation: quality of the learning environment, support of innovation, and influence exerted on intellectual advancement outside the university. The results of the THE review are corroborated by other studies, and it makes sense that English-speaking Universities are in a better position to have their work quoted by different scholars, but ahead of Bologna we also find 20 Asian universities. Three are in Mainland China, four in Hong Kong, and the other 13 spread around eastern Asia. Bologna has not only fallen away from the top 200, she is not even placed well among the “best of the rest.”
Alarm bells should be ringing by now in Italy, and the right kind of reaction would be to make a plan and take action, in that order. The worst possible outcome would be to discount the ranking, stick to tradition, and resist evolution because it is too risky and competitive. Unfortunately, this conservative position still prevails in the city and in its academic circles. Excellence in teaching, like all other things, is subject to wither. It needs to be fostered by funds to guarantee research, scholarships, and publications. Last year, Harvard University wielded $26 billion (US) in private financing, the kind of money that ensures academic quality and intellectual freedom to the highest degree. Without proper funding, the celebration of the past becomes a shelter, an excuse to perpetuate a declining superiority. To climb the ladder of world ranking, the University needs to attract the world’s most talented professors and prestigious students, which in turn drives up enrollment and registration fees, a lucrative cycle that rewards investment with profit and credibility.
The case of Chinese students in Bologna is illuminating. No other Italian institute of higher education has as many of them as Bologna, but their number is still marginal. They are often criticized for their difficulties in picking up the Italian language and for keeping stubbornly to the fundamentals of their culture, but in the other universities of the world their results are better than those in Italy. The 500,000 Chinese students hard at work in foreign schools are appreciated for their commitment, discipline, and achievements. Their predisposition for systematic application leads to excellence in the scientific fields- a product of their cultural background.
Italians should question their own analysis, rather than the Chinese, to understand what is happening to Italian universities. Will Chinese students always dream of coming to study in Italy, in Bologna? The best Chinese students’ greatest ambition is to attend the top universities in China, not abroad. Graduating from Shanghai or Beijing ensures gainful employment and social respectability. If they do intend to study abroad, they would rather choose institutions where courses are taught in English, scientific research is properly funded, and possible publications are more likely to be valued by peers.
Could it be that when the Chinese students disappoint us, it is because we were unable to attract the cream of the crop? Are we under the illusion that they still consider Italy a prestigious destination for higher learning, that Italy still has the draw for intellectual talent that it once did? A little humility will go a long way, as will a broadening of horizons. The danger is otherwise to celebrate our own decline, convinced that the world still revolves around us. Being “Bolognesi” might be a matter of pride, and stardust can be a good place from which to start over, but not when we are still floundering in the sands of time.