'Peasants' get own college

July 25, 1997

Italian Switzerland has had its own university since last October in Lugano, the canton's principal city, after years of seeing itself as being too poor and sparsely populated to warrant one.

The idea of a university in Ticino, known as the peasant canton, was rejected at several referendums - the first 150 years ago when Switzerland's modern constitution was written - until one in 1994.

"There was scepticism among the intellectually more prepared people," Marco Baggiolini, president of the University of Italian Switzerland (UIS), says. "They felt that a university in Ticino would not have a chance. They felt, why don't we send our young people to established universities?" The launch, propelled by Lugano's own long-standing commitment to the idea, happened very quickly.

Mauro Baranzini, acting university president, says: "We decided the combination of faculties around a table in a good pub and the financial plan in a one-hour rail journey through the Monte Olimpino tunnel."

While the inauguration and admission of the first students raised barely a flicker of interest outside the area, the event was one of remarkable significance to its citizens.

"The eyes of the Confederation," wrote the Corriere del Ticino, "are focused on Lugano and Mendrisio, the new university's campuses which today welcome roughly 400 students in three faculties."

The number of students and faculties seems insignificant when compared to Switzerland's well-established universities or the production-line academia commonplace across the Italian frontier. Milan, Turin and Bologna, for example, have been among the traditional academic destinations of qualified Italian Swiss students.

Its ability to reverse this trend quickly, no less than the ability to attract students from beyond Ticino and even Italy, will play a substantial role in USI's success.

Author Giovanni Oralli thinks this is how USI will rescue Ticino from anonymity. "It should not limit itself to modest, unpretentious relations with Italy, but it should find expressions of Italian life and culture elsewhere . . . centres of advanced studies in the United States and the rest of Europe."

In its first year, 60 per cent of students came from Ticino, its desired maximum. It is counting on the rest of Switzerland to almost double its 8 per cent share. The rest of the world, including 16 per cent from Italy, fills the gap.

Students bring in somewhat less than 20 per cent of USI's annual budget. The Swiss Confederation and the city of Lugano share a further 40 per cent. But it is the university's small scale, and the advantages which derive from it, that give it confidence in the future.

"I am very impressed at seeing really important figures such as Luigi Dadda, Eddo Rigotti, and other professors spending hours with the students, teaching them, listening to them, waiting for them after lectures," Professor Baggiolini says.

The university has three faculties: economics, communications science and architecture. Banking is Ticino's latest success story, so much so that Lugano has shot into third place ahead of Basle in Switzerland's banking table. Funds are flooding in, largely from Italian sources, attracted by Lugano's proximity to Milan and Turin, and by Switzerland's celebrated political and social stability. Spin-off enterprises such as fashion and viticulture are creating an economic boom quite at odds with the image of historic Ticino.

The faculty of communications science is the most provocative. The first of its kind in Switzerland, it emphasises the sociology of communications. Its mission is to comprehensively educate students well beyond their ability to manipulate intricate computer programmes.

To do this the university is using the most sophisticated equipment money can buy, in the form of Switzerland's Centre for Scientific Computing. But, as author and playwright Umberto Eco told an international gathering hosted by the publishing house Nuova Critica in Lugano in November 1995: "Planning a school of communications essentially means designing a place not so much to study things as to learn how to acquire the mental structures needed to understand things that are to come."

Apart from its climate and magnificent natural setting, Ticino has been an inexhaustible source of stonemasons, carvers, sculptors, and architects. Where would St Petersburg or Rome be were it not for names such as Borromini, Quarenghi and Trezzini? This tradition, now maintained by the young Mario Botta, made a faculty of architecture a natural choice for USI.

Botta, who was born in the building that became the school of architecture, describes his philosophy of design and building as manifesting "the ideals of the new university: the creation of spaces within which people can work usefully and live peacefully, and to which they can retreat for comfort in times of stress".

When, seven or eight centuries ago, Europe's first universities were founded, it was decided that higher education would form a coalition with church and state. The church has all but vanished from the scene leaving the state to find a new partner in business. The influence of the market evident in Lugano's choice of faculties, indicates that the old argument is once again topical.

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