With billions of euros on the table, Next Generation EU could be a game changer for research and education – especially in countries like Italy where underfunding is already a cause for concern. The crucial challenge lies in ensuring rapid implementation to pave the way for structural reforms. This piece by Maurizio Tira, Rector of the University of Brescia, breaks down how Italy plans to make the most of this opportunity and what it could mean for a post-pandemic future.
Italy is set to become the largest beneficiary of the Next Generation EU recovery package, with the Italian national plan being greenlighted by the European Commission at the end of June. The plan considers education and research among its key missions and allocates almost €30 billion to the sector over the period 2021-2026, nearly half of which is destined for the higher education system. This is double the national annual budget devoted by the Italian Ministry to the public university system. Importantly, other resources will be allocated by the national government from development and budget planning funds, and the policy reforms will allow for the use of European and national resources in a synergic and complementary way. Italian universities, represented by the Italian National Rectors’ Conference (CRUI), are confident that these investments will deeply change the current situation of underfunding in the higher education system.
The whole investment for the university and research sector is based on two main pillars: enhancing education services, as there is a need to review and innovate in this area; and supporting innovation and technology transfer (from research to business). Beneficiaries are universities, higher education institutions for art and music, research bodies, and, thus students, researchers, doctoral candidates, and public-private partnerships.
The reform component focused on education services is dedicated to the enhancement of skills and study support. It aims to promote access to higher education, strengthen tools for student course guidance to speed up the transition to the labour market and enhance the scientific, technological and linguistic skills of students and professional development of staff. Finally, the plan also focuses on reforming and increasing doctoral programmes and scholarships, while ensuring continuous evaluation of their quality.
The reform component planned to enhance the transfer of knowledge from research to business focuses on strengthening research and encouraging the dissemination of innovative models for basic and applied research carried out in synergy between universities and businesses. It also aims to support innovation and technology transfer processes, as well as reinforce research infrastructures, capital and skills necessary to support innovation.
Nearly a quarter of these resources are earmarked for “people”: researchers, doctoral candidates and researcher managers, and another 16% will go to students (housing, scholarships and active guidance). Other important areas of investment are infrastructure (11%), innovation ecosystems (10%), new partnerships (11%), national research centres (12%), and national research projects (13%).
Source: Italian Ministry for University and Research (MIUR)
In this context, three types of reforms are already starting in 2021, in addition to a general reform of the public administration (and state universities are a special case within that category) to simplify rules and procedures for competing in the research arena. The first is a reform of the academic degree classes towards more flexibility to cope with multidisciplinary programmes and address the need for soft skills coming from the business sector. The second is a reform of the syllabus to cope with the challenges evidenced by the European University Initiative alliances in implementing multiple degrees. The third is a reform of “professional degrees”, between the high school diploma and the academic Bachelor, for greater coordination between the secondary and the university levels.
Other reforms relate to doctoral programmes to assure flexible and high-quality pathways, as well as legislation on student housing. The idea is to define new standards for housing, facilitating the restructuring and renewal of the structures in place as “green” buildings, facilitating the procedure for the submission and selection of projects.
The challenges are great, because public authorities and the sector need to review and innovate the education system, as a consequence of the pandemic, but also to guarantee its high quality and innovative approaches. Italy needs to speed up the reforms, and CRUI hopes that the extra funds allocated through the Next Generation EU recovery package and the related national plan will help leverage further stable government investments. The university system will bring value for money, but it all depends on two fundamental requirements, in the words of CRUI President Ferruccio Resta at the Association’s May Assembly: long-term sustainability and rapid implementation.
The university system was able to react quickly during the pandemic, but now is the time for structural reforms. Measures must be taken fast and implemented swiftly to deliver longer-term benefits. This is the change of pace that Italian universities have been asking for.
This article is based on the presentation by Maurizio Tira at the EUA webinar “University funding towards 2030: increasing firepower in the post-pandemic phase”. It was held on 27 May 2021.
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