The university on water

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Ca’ Foscari university is based in Venice, maybe the world’s most distinctive city. Martin Ince talks to the rector, Michele Bugliesi, about the major challenges the University faces, including the high cost of its extraordinary estate and how a long history of international activity means that it can face the future in a novel way.

Universities all around the world occupy amazing buildings, from marble halls many centuries old, to today’s increasingly green and glassy structures. But Ca’ Foscari is among the few with a genuine claim to the adjective ‘unique’. Its buildings sit along the canals of Venice, arguably the world’s most distinctive city, and on the mainland opposite. And although the university was set up in 1868, most of its buildings are centuries older.

Michele Bugliesi, rector of the university, points to pluses and minuses when it comes to running a university on water. “The City is an open-air campus and I can walk to any of our sites here in 15 minutes,” he says. It is also somewhere people want to be. “Any academic conference in Venice brings in 20 per cent more people than the same event in another city.” On the other hand, life there is complex. “It takes longer to build or buy new infrastructure, or to maintain what we have,” says Bugliesi. As an example, he points to the postcard-worthy building we are sitting in. Located scenically on the Grand Canal, the university’s splendid HQ is in the former palace of the Foscari family, which gave its name to the institution. It dates to the15th century and has been the subject of a complex and expensive restoration program.

Bugliesi adds that these infrastructure issues connect directly to Italian education politics. Italian governments want more graduates in the workforce, so: “There is always tension in Italy over limiting student numbers.” But, as he says, the university has 14,700 students and lacks the space to take any more. Instead, Ca’ Foscari is working to reduce numbers by attacking Italian higher education’s most familiar problem, the sheer number of years it takes the students to complete courses. Many fall behind because they can retake parts of a course, so they end up studying for last year’s exams as well as the current year’s. Bugliesi says that most Ca’ Foscari students now finish within six months of their planned completion, heroic by Italian standards. Even this figure is artificially inflated by participation in the Erasmus scheme for European student mobility.

Rather than growing the student body, his ambition is to enhance the student experience by improving Ca’ Foscari’s faculty to student ratio. Its number of permanent academic staff has recently grown from 500 to 550, in addition to over 250 teaching instructors recruited with non-permanent contracts. But this, too, is far from being a simple process. He says: “Because university faculty are counted as civil servants, we can only recruit to replace people who leave or retire. That means that we cannot start a new subject fast.”

Originally set up as a school of commerce, Ca’ Foscari has a long tradition in economics, foreign languages and the humanities, which carries over to the present day through internationally-renowned departments and schools centred on these fields. And given its location, it naturally has a commitment to history, culture and the arts. But Bugliesi, himself a computer scientist, adds that the university is now growing its presence in science and technology. He says: “We are expanding in sustainability, environmental sciences, nanotechnology and computer science.” Further expansion can be achieved by partnering with other institutions as well as by redirecting existing effort. The university has long been a force in chemistry, partly because of the proximity to the north Italian chemical industry. The emphasis of this activity has shifted from bulk chemicals to nanotechnology and new materials. In addition, Ca’ Foscari is one of the main beneficiaries of an Italian national scheme to grow university excellence with supplementary funding. Five departments have received new money from this source, allowing 25 faculty to be recruited.

Growing resources

However, Bugliesi warns that it is hard to have a progressive education policy in a system where government priorities tend to be driven by consensus, since there is little national agreement among the voters about what Italian universities are for. The sector’s low salience means that academic pay is low by European standards.

“There are lots of statements [from politicians] on the strategic value of higher education, but funding has not been consistent, and Italian society has far fewer graduates than the European average,” he says. “At the same time, Italy does not have anything like the German Fachhochschulen [to develop non-graduate technical skills].” The university plans to create such an institution in Venice, working with the city and with a local College of Commerce.

He explains that 58 per cent of the cash Ca‘ Foscari gets from the Italian state is spent on salaries. The rest is money which the university is free to allocate. Much of it goes on various forms of student support, including scholarships and study-abroad money. Then there is a hefty allocation to research. Teaching contracts, for example given to language teachers and visiting professors, are another significant cost. And it is essential to have cash for new initiatives and for tasks such as building maintenance.

Bugliesi says that of the university’s €150 million annual spending, almost €80 million comes from government. Student fees make up the next biggest share. While the Italian constitution guarantees education as a basic right, it is ‘cheap’ rather than ‘free’, in contrast to some other European nations. EU funding, both for research and for the Erasmus student mobility program, is also important. There is some industrial and business income for research, in quantities that Bugliesi admits are small but capable of growth. And he adds that in the past two years, Ca’ Foscari has started to catch up with the global trend for university fund-raising. The hope is to raise cash for research, for buildings and for scholarships.

But even today, it is possible for Italian universities to grow by innovation. Bugliesi says: “It is hard to develop a new undergraduate degree here. But the system is more liberal when it comes to PhDs, executive education and summer schools. We are expanding all of these, especially the summer schools, via joint programs with other universities and by conventional exchange.” And of course, Ca’ Foscari’s location is as good as it gets as a magnet to draw in students for the summer months.

At the same time, Ca’ Foscari shares the ambition of many institutions to grow its global appeal to full degree-seeking students. Bugliesi says: “Our annual student intake is about 7,000. Our target is for 10 per cent to be international by 2020, and we have now reached six per cent. To support this aim we are building 1,000 new student residences in the city and on the mainland.” Asia – (not just China) – is the big target area. Ca’ Foscari’s long commitment to Oriental Studies means that it already has deep connections across the region.

Bugliesi sees international students as one way of globalising the university and its offerings. “We have a digital enterprise management course that attracts international students at three times our usual fee,” he says. “It has twice as many acceptable applicants as we can take”. An earlier initiative for a PISE course (philosophy, international studies and economics), modelled on Oxford University’s PPE, (philosophy, politics and economics), has been growing just as fast. There is now more teaching in English, and the university is insistent that the English used be fluent, placing a new demand on faculty. Bugliesi also wants Ca’ Foscari to become more ambitious in terms of research, especially interdisciplinary research that can make the most of its growing commitment to science and technology.

Bugliesi explains: “We started working in an interdisciplinary way with languages and management, the original foundation subjects of Ca’ Foscari University. These disciplines both involve understanding people, and work together naturally. The first such course we introduced was language and management for China, and it became a great success.” Then it was natural to get involved in climate change, as the university is strong in modelling the economic costs of global warming and of climate mitigation. “Based on that experience, we are now following up with frontier research on demographic transformation, digital innovation, intercultural dialogue, and globalisation.”

And there is a third leg to this interdisciplinary approach, involving Venice itself. Many of Ca’ Foscari’s disciplines touch on the city, which Bugliesi describes as “the paradigmatic mix of natural and anthropic environments.” The development of the Venice lagoon’s islands, beaches, waters and wildlife are key concerns. There is also an emphasis on helping the city deal with its current problems. Anyone who has visited St Mark’s Square, the heart of the city, knows why Ca’ Foscari’s research on managing the flow of tourists is so essential.

Ca’ Foscari is also involved in a massive digital effort to document the cultural heritage of the city. It has led a widely-praised multinational project to digitise the city’s 80 shelf-kilometres of archives. This has involved the development of a scanner, supplemented by artificial intelligence, which can digitise books without opening them, an initiative which Bugliesi describes with the enthusiasm of a true technologist. It represents the university’s commitment to local action alongside global growth, and is the kind of project that symbolises exactly Ca’ Foscari’s modern ambition in the ancient city.

Professor Michele Bugliesi is rector of Ca’ Foscari University and a graduate of Pisa, Purdue and Paris, having taken his PhD from Université Denis Diderot Paris VII in 2003. He has completed four years of a six-year term which, he points out, is non-renewable under Italian law; he agrees that this stipulation prevents him from the need to make rash promises to get re-elected. He may return to his academic field of computer science upon leaving office. But as he admits, six years is long time to be out of this fast-moving area. So a career in managing IT and its growing effects may be an appealing option.