Still changing after all these years (929 of them)

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Prof Francesco Ubertini

Francesco Ubertini has been rector of the University of Bologna in Italy since 2015. Here he discusses the challenges of running Europe’s oldest and continuously operating university at a time of change for Italy as a whole, and for its higher education system in particular.

The University of Bologna (Unibo) dates back to 1088, is known for its antiquity and heritage, and has a list of top alumni from Erasmus to Enzo Ferrari. But Francesco Ubertini insists that its history is “more a push factor” for change than a weight holding it back, and that the university has a proven capacity to develop and renew itself. “If it is true that in 1088 the Bologna ‘Studium’ was founded by students and for students, which makes the Alma Mater Studiorum the oldest university in the Western world, it is also true that we have a long-standing tradition of continuous change. The university has always renewed itself over the centuries.”

As well as being very old, the university is very big, with over 84,000 students. Professor Ubertini says that although it has recently implemented admission quotas for many courses, student numbers will remain at this level. He expects increasing quality and geographical diversity in the student body, reflecting demand for high-quality higher education in Italy and beyond.

He says: “Bologna’s multi-campus organisational model is a distinctive characteristic begun 20 years ago, and still unique in Italy. The Romagna campuses alone have 20,000 students, the average size of an Italian university. Cooperation with local bodies in the four multi-campus cities has generated new services, new buildings, and increased travel on the part of teachers and students in the region. This creates the need for a new and more sustainable vision of the multi-campus model itself.” The university has created a new Sustainable Unibo Office and a three-year strategic plan, based upon the 17 Sustainable Development Goals defined by the United Nations in 2015.

Politics and money

But while it is never easy to run a world-class university, the task is even more complex in the tricky Italian context. According to OECD statistics, only 1.6% of Italian public spending was devoted to tertiary education in 2013, the lowest percentage in the 28 EU countries. And Professor Ubertini says that even today, the Italian higher education system is still suffering from the severe budget cuts of the past ten years, which add to historically low budget levels in the public system as a whole. He says: “Leading politicians appreciate the importance of higher education in principle. However, when it comes to critical decisions, higher education rarely manages to prevail over day-to-day business.”

Nor does he expect the cost to students of studying in Italy to rise significantly from its present levels. “We should keep in mind that the economic crisis of the past 10 years, and the rising demands of high-quality higher education, have led to increasing difficulties for the lower social classes in gaining access to university.”

But he also points optimistically to signs that decisions on public spending are increasingly driven by performance indicators rather than by lobbying. Some are being based on the National Evaluation of Research Quality – VQR – carried out by the National Agency for the Evaluation of Universities and Research Institutes.

And Professor Ubertini is keen to stress that he sees Unibo as an international institution. It has a branch in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is being restructured and given a broader educational offer in collaboration with local universities and the private sector. Professor Ubertini expects it to become the template for more overseas Unibo sites.

More importantly, Professor Ubertini stresses the importance of international students to Unibo’s Italian campuses. “From the very beginning, foreign students have been a part of university life, and they play important roles at the University of Bologna. They contribute different perspectives to the experience of all students, and enhance our long tradition of having students learn from each other. The first rector of the University of Bologna was a student elected by students. International students bring a variety of skills, abilities and diverse points of view and help local students to develop a global mind-set. Moreover, they supply crucial research capacities and a wealth of ideas and innovative solutions that are fundamental to enhancing the learning experience and ensuring that others can enjoy a stimulating, multicultural academic environment. This goes well beyond the significant financial return they deliver.”

As an example of its global commitment to students, Professor Ubertini points to the university’s simplified enrolment procedures for refugees. The university offers asylum-seekers who are waiting to be recognised as refugees the possibility of enrolling for free in single learning activities and Italian courses. They follow a bespoke enrolment procedure, and can be exempted from providing some of the documents usually required by students with non-Italian qualifications. He sees this as an opportunity for refugees to fill learning gaps and get a taste of the subjects awaiting them in a full degree programme. On obtaining international protection, the students may apply for a full degree programme, and for recognition of the credits they have acquired.

The university had 10,700 international students in 2015/16, about half of them via student mobility programmes, with the other enrolled for degrees. The biggest exchange group, of about 4,400, were from western Europe. Of the enrolled students, about 2,800 came from across Europe, 1,100 from Asia and another 1200 from Africa and the Middle East. Bologna’s newly released 2016–2018 Strategic Plan has the objective of increasing the number of international students and diversifying their geographical origin.

Chinese future?

But Professor Ubertini is cautious about the idea that Chinese students will transform the outlook for European universities, “We believe for many reasons that Chinese students will become harder to attract, and we are developing strategies to tackle this issue. In the enrolment of Chinese students, one of the main constraints is the language barrier. Unibo is currently working on a final assessment to verify their level of Italian. In parallel, the China Association College at Unibo, founded in October 2005, draws its inspiration from the university colleges that have hosted foreign students studying at the Alma Mater Studiorum ever since its foundation in 1088. The Bologna Confucius Institute, also based at Bologna university, has played an important role since 2005 in promoting Chinese language and culture throughout the Emilia Romagna region, organising initiatives aimed at promoting a better understanding of the civilisation, culture and history of ancient and modern China.

“China is without doubt a key market and we are striving to reinforce our collaborations there, not only in science and technology but also in social studies and the humanities. An increasing number of Chinese students and stronger collaborations with China will represent major added value for us, and the opposite would indicate a missed opportunity.”

In addition to its success in attracting degree-seeking students, shorter- term student mobility is a prime concern for Unibo. Professor Ubertini points out that Bologna is number one in Italy for incoming mobility and is one of the top ten destinations in Europe. It is also a prime recipient of EU research cash. “We are among the most active organisations in terms of EC contributions granted to research projects. According to FP7 Monitoring Report [on EU research spending], Bologna is the first public large university in Italy for these projects, just behind Milan Polytechnic (Polimi).”

Number of Participations % of all IT Participations EC contribution
(M euro)
% of total EC contribution
to IT Participations
Polimi 248 2.09% 85.97 2.39%
Unibo 244 2.06% 80.97 2.26%
Source: 7th FP7 monitoring report Country profile IT – Italy (Member States group)


The University of Bologna was the first Italian university to set up an organisational unit dedicated to accessing European funds. It is now adapting this model to H2020, the current EU research initiative, and establishing stronger partnerships with the Emilia Romagna Region and its entrepreneurial network.

As further proof of Unibo’s international orientation, he adds that a third of Bologna’s degree courses are taught in English and that the university is looking to increase this figure. “In the academic year 2016/2017 we will launch new initiatives in English in the field of Italian studies, digital humanities, wellbeing, wellness and quality of life, medicine and surgery, genomics, and last but not least automotive engineering in the context of Emilia-Romagna as the Motor Valley.” As Professor Ubertini points out, the area is home to Ducati, Lamborghini, Scuderia Toro Rosso, Ferrari, Maserati, Pagani, Dallara and Magneti Marelli.

Professor Francesco Ubertini was born in 1970. Originally from Perugia, he went to Unibo as an undergraduate and has never left. He became a full professor of mechanics of solids and structures in 2007, and from 2007 to 2010 was head of the Department of Structural Engineering, Transport, Public Works, and Surveying of the Territory (DISTART). From 2010 to 2015 he was head of the Department of Civil, Chemical, Environmental and Materials Engineering (DICAM). He became University of Bologna rector in November 2015.