There are 96 universities in Italy (including 11 online programs) with courses in at least 200 locations: almost twice the number of provincial capitals. Over the last 20 years, every city has claimed to have the university, the expo, and the airport with the illusion of becoming an important magnet capable of attracting investments. Instead, they frequently suffered losses in the absence of critical masses and economies of scale. Almost prolonging high school, young Italians, thinking they were acquiring elevated expertise and marketable degrees, remained at their parents’ houses much longer than their American and European peers. The negative impacts on physical and social mobility are under everyone’s microscopes.
The final blow to the unsustainable university system could be delivered, paradoxically, from universities everywhere with their free Massive Open Online Classes (MOOC). MOOC are easily accessible and their offerings can adapt rapidly to market demands. Their diffusion has been impressive. The phenomenon exploded in 2011 after Stanford offered a course on artificial intelligence followed by 160,000 students. Since then, thousands of courses have been taken by millions of users across the world. The projected growth for these programs over the next 5 years is 60% per year.
As in other sectors, a polarizing phenomenon is underway in university education. On one side, the top schools are always more exclusive, expensive, and inaccessible: one year at Oxford, Cambridge, or a US Ivy League like Harvard, Yale, or Princeton costs at least $50,000. At the other extreme, the MOOC revolution threatens thousands of universities lacking the prestige, faculty, and infrastructure of top schools. There are those who believe the MOOCs will kill the traditional mid- and lower-level universities. Maybe it’s an exaggeration, but pressure on public universities to accept credit for online courses is mounting, and the American Council on Education is making moves in that direction.
The challenge also involves Italian universities. Nothing is stopping English, South Korean, or US Universities from opening branches in Italy that offer quality courses at sustainable prices. University teaching methods would be revolutionized and not all traditional schools would survive. As always, big changes are sources of risk, but also opportunity as long as you know how to seize them. An unprecedented opportunity has availed itself to millions of students in developing countries who would never have had any possibility of accessing higher education. But, Italian schools also have various opportunities if they can adapt to the evolution without suffering it: from cost reduction to the expansion of their catchment areas, both in terms of geography and age. In fact, MOOCs are particularly suited for professional, public and private sector, and transitional lifelong learning. Italy could be the leader in certain areas. The Bocconi University launched a MOOC in fashion and luxury, collecting more than 20,000 subscribers from 157 countries in a few days.
Online courses represent only one of the many challenges facing universities, from industry ties in research fields to the ability to attract private resources, students, and foreign academics via career transparency and recognizing merit. Italian universities need to decide if they want to seriously confront radical innovation processes happening at schools across the developed world. Reducing the number of locations is an important step in preparing for new challenges, concentrating resources, eliminating waste, and encouraging young people to leave home to study.
Originally published in Italian on Il Sole 24 ORE on November 24, 2014