Post-Covid university collaboration can cement European identity

No institution will be able to make it alone amid the pandemic-induced tumult, so let’s make shared values the antidote to the crisis, says Ferruccio Resta

February 21, 2021
European flags outside the the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France
Source: iStock

Italy was the first country in Europe to be affected by the pandemic, and the first democracy globally to meet the challenge of the virus. While other countries were assessing the possibility of being impacted by coronavirus, those of us in Milan, in particular, were already in the eye of the hurricane. We had to set an example and lead.

At Politecnico di Milano, it took us a couple of weeks to turn our entire teaching system into virtual classes, allowing more than 45,000 students to continue learning – and almost 12,000 to graduate. We stumbled, but Italian universities managed to get back on track, even securing a 7.6 per cent rise in admissions nationwide for the 2020-21 academic year – albeit at the cost of an essential part of the educational process: the one that relates to interpersonal growth and psychological well-being.

The question now is what comes next.

In my view, the way students attend university will not be the same any more. Once they get back to campus, after having spent so much time isolated, they are unlikely to be content to focus on theoretical concepts. They will probably ask for more interaction, interdisciplinary team-working, practical labs and stimulating new training experiences. To best accommodate that, we need to draw a line between what we can best do in class and what we can better accomplish remotely.

For this reason, we at Politecnico di Milano 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 relationships and interactions will change and how the organisation will work. Together with some of the biggest universities in Europe, we are exploring the ways in which human interactions are going to change and how the system will adapt.

Halfway through last year, we decided to invest a further €3 million (£2.6 million) in digital equipment, supplying more than 300 classrooms with video tracking and streaming systems. But we still have more questions than answers about what the future will look like. Deciding on the kind of classrooms we will need relates to a bigger series of questions. How to design mixed and customised learning paths? How to tailor courses to capitalise on talent? How will exams and assessment change? How to compete with high-quality digital offers? What kind of services should we give our students to compensate for the costs of attending a physical campus?

What we know for sure is that no institution will be able to make it alone. Cooperation is the real fulcrum of the pandemic. This includes allowing more of other universities’ students into our physical communities and also increasing exchange through distance learning. Attending and providing classes across Europe, sharing lectures and co-designing new courses in inter-university groups are valuable possibilities that we are exploring with fellow members of the IDEA League, a strategic alliance of five leading European universities of science and technology. On reflection, maybe the pandemic was just the push we needed.

We are also building on other strategic alliances, anchored in student exchange, to meet our students’ growing appetite for international study. Just before the pandemic hit, more than 5,500 students at Politecnico di Milano had responded to the Erasmus+ international mobility call: 17 per cent more than the previous year. It means that increasing numbers think that spending time abroad is an essential part of their curriculum. Our alliances have consolidated relationships of trust and this has led to common educational paths and large-scale shared infrastructures and services. They have also led to the transmission of shared values. Let’s make these the real antidote to the crisis.

Last November, amid the second wage of contagion, we and six other universities across the old continent launched the Enhance consortium: one of the prototype “European universities” funded under Erasmus to lay the foundations for a barrier-free European education space where students, teachers and staff could move freely as if they were part of a single institution. Our role within the network is to implement the concept of “one campus”, which would allow students, for example, to select and be credited for courses regardless of which university provides them. Location, either physical or virtual, will no longer be a barrier. This is the future of the European university system – and of the concept of Europe itself.

I say this because the European Union, which should be the third major actor in the global scene, alongside the US and China, is experiencing the failure of policies implemented in recent years and facing the centrifugal forces of nationalism and independence. The European Universities initiative is just one of the unifying measures it has launched to redress the balance.

If we can fully exploit the benefits they offer, with a skilful blend of online and in-person education, we will provide the continent with a geopolitical boost not merely in terms of the skills with which future students graduate but also in terms of their internationalist mindsets.

Ferruccio Resta is rector of Politecnico di Milano.

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