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Globalization

In English, per favore

Italian universities create courses in English to win over students from abroad

MARCOS PIVETTAUniversity of BolognaMARCOS PIVETTA

With its six and a half centuries of existence, in 2009 the traditional University of Pavia, located in a small town from which it draws its name, 35 kilometers from Milan, in the north of Italy, started a second graduate course in medicine with an academic program that is exactly the same as the traditional course. If it was not for one detail the initiative could go almost unnoticed: all the activities on the new course, which lasts six years, are given in English. “We only speak Italian when we meet a student outside class times,”  says Antonio Rossi, one of the biochemistry professors. In class, students and teachers, regardless of their nationality, are obliged to swap their mother tongue for the language of Shakespeare.

The creation of the course in a foreign language had a clear objective. “We wanted to internationalize the university more, to attract students of a better level from abroad and improve our position in the rankings which compare institutions from around the world,” says Maurizia Valli, coordinator of the two medicine courses at the University of Pavia, the old one, in Italian with 185 places every year and the new one, in English, with 100 places, 20 of which are for students from outside the European Union. “Our university has a good level, but the Italian language doesn’t help our objective.”  In the most recent QS ranking, compiled in the United Kingdom, for example, the University of Pavia, which has 25,000 students in 9 faculties, occupies the 363rd position, behind many institutions in Europe, the United States, Asia and also the Brazilian University of São Paulo (USP) and State University of Campinas (Unicamp).

The new medicine course has still not produced the hoped-for effects. In the midst of some 75,000 inhabitants from the region around Pavia, the number of students from foreign universities has not been significant. Most of the students that have so far entered the course in English were Italians looking for a degree that appears to be more globalized and is capable of opening up job positions in other countries in Europe or in the United States. Such is the case of Elia Rigamonti, 21, a second-year medical student. “I did high school in Hong Kong and I speak English,” says Rigamonti. “I wanted to carry on practicing the language and I decided to take the course in English. The university is cheap and less organized than in other countries, but pretty competitive.”

Low fees
The fees in Italian public universities are low when compared with teaching institutions in the United States and other European countries. In Pavia, the maximum fee is some –  3,500 per year, depending on the financial situation of the student. The attraction of moderate costs and the charm of living in Italy should have been enough for there to be an endless line of candidates from abroad. That is not what has happened so far. In 2009, the first year of the course, only 19 non-European candidates enrolled. All got in but they were not enough to fill the quota of 20 places for students from outside the Old World. Last year the story was not much different.

MARCOS PIVETTAUniversity of Bologna buildings: 6% of foreign studentsMARCOS PIVETTA

There appears to be only one reason for this disappointing demand. “We can do the course in English but the federal government does not allow us to do the entrance exam, which is national, in a language that is not Italian,” explains Maurizia. “Therefore, we are still not attracting the best students from abroad, but only our former public from abroad, which comprises some interested students from the Middle East, particularly from Israel, and from Africa and Albania.”  The course coordinator believes that when more Italian universities start offering higher education in other languages it will be possible to convince the central authorities of the need to do the selection process in English. Last year at least a further two higher education institutions started medicine courses totally in English: the University of Milan, which is public like Pavia, and the San Raffaele Institute, which is private and located in this same city.

In Pavia there are also Master’s courses that last two years and are taught only in English, like the molecular biology and genetics course and the economics and international business course. As can be seen, the concern to improve image and reputation in a globalized and competitive university world in which English is increasingly establishing itself as the lingua franca of academia, is not restricted to Italian schools that educate surgeons or general clinicians. According to a survey carried out last year by the National University Council, an elective body that represents the Italian higher education system with the Ministry of Instruction, University and Research, there were 64 graduate courses entirely taught in English in the country. One quarter of them was in the business administration and economics area. The number of academic activities carried out in a foreign language is growing, although  the total number of graduate courses in Italy decreased by 9% between 2008 and 2010.

Perhaps the most international teaching and research center in the whole of Italy is not located in Rome or Milan, the two best-known and trendy cities in the country. Considered to be the oldest higher education institution in the Western World, having been founded in 1088, in 2009 the University of Bologna had 4,800 students from abroad, some 6% of its total number. This may seem few when compared with the percentage of students from abroad found in the major North American and English universities, but it is higher than the Italian average. As has become routine in places of world renown, the presence of Chinese students stands out. They represent 10% of the foreign students studying in Bologna and depend on support from an association linked to the university, the College of China. With an eye on this public, the university has pages on its website in Mandarin.

For historian, Carla Salvaterra, pro-dean of International Relations of the University of Bologna, opening up to students from abroad was always a mark of her institution, which is famous for its humanities and law courses. This is not a current feature, nor is it from the 21st century. In 1988, when it completed 900 years of existence, Bologna was, for example, the main formulator and stage for the signature of the Magna Carta, a document that among other points restates the autonomy and independence of universities, the inseparable character of teaching and research activities and the need for a reciprocal knowledge of different cultures. “At that time not much was talked about globalization, but the Magna Carta was important in our process of internationalization,” says Carla. Today 721 universities from 79 countries, including 11 from Brazil, are signatories of the document. According to the pro-dean, Bologna’s objective is not to compete with universities from other countries for the best students in the world. “What we want is to maintain a minimum quality level,”  she explains.

The University of  Bologna, which has had a campus in Buenos Aires since the end of the 1990s and every year sends some 200 students on exchange courses abroad, today has 40 graduate courses and above all Master’s courses in foreign languages, most of them in English. In September this year, lessons are beginning for a new MBA, all in English, which will deal with Brazil-Europe relations from the business point of view. “Interest in Brazil has grown a lot over the last five years in Italy,”  says Roberto Vecchi, a professor of Portuguese and Brazilian literature at the University of Bologna. Vecchi recently concluded an informal survey in the university ad discovered that 150 of its professors, from the humanities, and exact and biological sciences, have already done some research work in collaboration with Brazilian colleagues. With the support of the local dean’s office, the information encouraged him to put together a group of 30 researchers from 15 different departments to strengthen partnerships with the other side of the Atlantic. “We want to develop interdisciplinary projects with Brazilians,”  he says.

MARCOS PIVETTAUniversity of Pavia: medical course entirely in EnglishMARCOS PIVETTA

Twenty Nobel Prizes
It is not necessary to invoke names from the distant past, like Galileo Galilei, to say that Italy had and still has weight in the global production of knowledge. The country has won 20 Nobel Prizes,  6 in Literature, 1 in Peace and the rest in scientific areas. According to a survey by Essential Science Indicators, which takes into account work published in journals indexed by Thomson Reuters, Italy was the eighth biggest producer of science between January 2000 and August 2010, right behind Canada. In the period, it produced almost 410,000 scientific articles. This is 30% less than its neighbor, France, sixth placed in the ranking, but Italy spends 1.3% of its GDP on research, while Paris earmarks around 2% for the sector.

There are those who believe that international surveys do not do justice to the true size of Italian scientific production. With this idea in his head, Italian biochemist, Mauro Degli Esposti, a professor at the University of Manchester in England, decided to construct an alternative way of measuring the productivity of universities and researchers in his native land. Helped by a professional statistics colleague, since 2009 he has had an on-line ranking based on the so-called h index, a way of measuring the size and impact of the production of a scientist.

“Italy should be the fifth producer of science in the world,”  says Degli Esposti, who has a website where the data from his lists, separated by name of scientist, academic area and by research institution, are updated automatically. “The international rankings ignore the work of many of my fellow countrymen who live abroad.”   Today more than two thousand researchers, all with an index greater than 30, a performance considered good, and at least 130 universities appear on the lists of the Via-Academy, whose results are frequently reported in the Italian press. The universities of Bologna, Padua and Milan take turns swapping places in the first three spots in the ranking by institution. Degli Esposti calls the best researchers from his country the “top Italian scientists”   just like that, in English. That is internationalization.

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