The campus that is also a city

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Rosario Rizzuto

Rosario Rizzuto loves being rector of Padua University, a dominant force for centuries in this lovely Italian city. But he tells Martin Ince that he looks forward to ending his term of office and getting back to life as a scientist.

The University of Padua, in north-east Italy, is not Europe’s oldest. That distinction belongs to nearby Bologna. But having opened its doors in 1222, it is old enough to be a historic institution as well as a contemporary one. Insiders like to say that the city of Padua does not have a university campus. Instead, it is a university campus, dominated by the medieval buildings of the university and enlivened by its student body of over 63,000 people.

The institution’s rector, Rosario Rizzuto, occupies a massive office whose art, furniture and other contents would be a highlight for any auction house. But he sees its heritage as a living thing. Its real importance, he says, is to remind today’s faculty and students that the university as founded “by and for scholars, not by Kings or Popes. When Galileo was a professor here, everything was fine. It was when he moved away that the trouble started.” Its academic freedom allowed Padua to be among the founding institutions of modern scientific medicine. This legacy “influences what happens now, in terms of the cultural and scientific freedom that we have today.”

Himself a medical researcher, Rizzuto is serving a six-year term in charge, after which he will return to his laboratory. He stresses that his once-a-week afternoon in the lab with his research group is the one unbreakable item in his diary. “Science doesn’t wait for anyone, and it is essential to stay current.”

Nor is the life of an Italian university rector straightforward. “It is a fact,” says Rizzuto, “that for a long time, Italian governments have not invested strongly in academic research. Italy is a big, successful manufacturing nation, but people don’t appreciate the connection between universities and the overall development of society. And if the people don’t see the link, it is not a priority for government.” But although higher education’s low priority with government is reflected in funding levels, Rizzuto emphatically does not regard low central government investment as an excuse for underperformance. “We have to have our own strategy for excellence, for example by investing more in young researchers.”

However, Rizzuto now hopes that as the Italian economy warms up, investment in people will grow. At the moment, about 30% of the working age population in an average developed country are graduates. The figure for Italy is only 19%, and this gap drives the pressure on universities to produce more graduates. This explains the sheer size of Italian universities – neighbouring Bologna has over 80,000 students. At the same time, it is difficult to grow faculty numbers. “The only way we can get 20 new faculty is if 20 retire,” explains Rizzuto. It is especially tricky to hire foreign staff. Rizzuto says that this process takes six months, by which time anyone worth hiring may have gone somewhere else.

However, Rizzuto is keen to stress that the Italian state’s overall position on higher education is one that he supports. The right to higher education is built into the Italian constitution. And this “right to study” is backed up by a low level of student fees, typically about €2,000 a year, and by government scholarships. He approves of this system. Ideally, he would like university education in Italy to be free, as it is in Germany, and for it to be clearly understood as a national benefit paid for by the nation as a whole. “The Constitution guarantees two basic rights,” he says, “health and education. This means that there is no need for families to set aside money for education or for sickness. It is very dangerous to perturb that arrangement.”

The Basilica di Sant`Antonio in Padova, Italy

One way in which Italian universities can do better, Rizzuto agrees, is in getting students to finish their courses on time. This long-running issue is now getting resolved, at least in Padua. The delays, he says, arise because there are few if any high-stakes exams. Instead there are many small ones, and delays build up as people push them into next year. “We are now discovering which courses are most prone to delay, and finding out if there are too many exams or whether they are too difficult. This lets us reduce the number of overstayers year-on-year without making the courses easier.”

Despite its leading role in creating educated people for Italian society, Padua has long been receptive to international students, and now has about 1500 at any one time, plus an equal number of exchange students. Rector Rizzuto says that meeting them is one of the pleasures of his job. Their varied backgrounds and expectations allow him to think afresh about how things are done in the institution.

He sees it as part of the university’s role to bring talented people to Italy and to Padua. “If they stay after they graduate, that is good for Italy. But if they return home, that helps create positive links to future leaders around the world.” His enthusiasm for building up international student numbers has been taken up across the institution. “This year we had 800 international pre-registrations, and 400 of those students came and registered,” he says. “In 2013 the number was 40, so that is a 10-fold increase in four years.”

At the moment, about 10% of the university’s courses are taught in English, and the number will grow as the university seeks more international students. But Rizzuto warns that this step is only appropriate when classes are truly international. “If everyone in the room is Italian except for two foreign students, you don’t want to use English,” he says. “If we have a student body which is 20-30% from overseas, that changes the nature of the class and makes it truly international.”

Rizzuto adds that the pressures to teach big classes have often led Italian universities to underplay the role of research. “The state funds universities,” he explains, “but the university allocates the money it receives. That tends to lead them to sacrifice research in favour of teaching. In addition, universities have big fixed costs which have to be met. And there is only limited state funding for research.” He is trying to bring in more, from the European Commissions, from industry and charities. “The EU tends to support science research, while the charities and the Ministry of Health are interested in medicine, and industry likes our engineering,” he says. Padua is the biggest Italian recipient of cash from the European Research Council, with 40 ERC award-holders in physics, chemistry, engineering and other fields, including Rizzuto himself. He is keen to recruit more and is using central university funds to attract them.

In addition, Italian universities are now working hard to make the social and economic importance of their research more obvious. UniPD, as the institution is universally known, has led the formation of Unismart Padua Enterprise, which is intended to transfer new technology from local universities to the local economy. Links to small and medium-scale engineering businesses are already good, and Rizzuto hopes that this success can be cloned in the biology and medical fields. “Padua is competitive for research in these areas with the big US universities, but we don’t have the start-up scene they have, at least not yet.”

At the same time, Rizzuto adds that UniPD may not be as astute as some US universities at making the most of its successful alumni. “We know we have graduates who are now chief executives,” he says. “But our data collection is too poor for us to have full information on them. We need better records to build a more active network.”

Rizzuto took his medical degree and PhD in Padua, and admits to “deep emotional ties” to the institution. While he has close ties to the US and could probably lead an important research group there if he wished, he is happy to be in Italy for many reasons. One of the most significant for him is that Padua is a place where he can see competitive science being done in a wide range of subjects. “We are showing here that Europe in general, and Italy especially, can compete on the world stage.”

Rector Rosario Rizzuto is a full professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at UniPD. He was born in Rome in 1962, and took his medical degree (1986) and PhD (1991) at Padua. He spent two years at the H. Merritt Centre for the Study of neuromuscular disorders at Columbia University, New York. His research activity is supported by a European Research Council grant and by the National Institute of Health, the Italian Association for Cancer Research (AIRC), Telethon-Italy, the Italian Education and Health Ministries, and the Cariparo and Cariplo bank foundations.