Interview with the Mayor of Turin, Piero Fassino

Piero Fassino is the Mayor of Turin (since 2011). He was the last National Secretary of the former Democrats of the Left party and Italy's Minister of Foreign Trade (1998-2000) and Minister of Justice (2000-01).

Piero Fassino

You have stated in a recent interview with La Stampa that you would like to see an American university in Turin. Are you currently negotiating with one or more American institutions? Which ones in particular?

Yes, we are working to attract foreign universities in order to improve the quality and international scope of higher education in Turin. Our goal is to transform Turin, which is a popular destination for Italian and foreign students (there are already 15,000 foreign students at the Polytechnic and the University of Turin) into a university town ('citta universitaria') equipped with facilities and services tailor-made for those who choose to study here.

What about British, Chinese or Indian universities? It was announced in January that Ningbo University will set up a campus in Florence.

Certainly. Turin has been for a long time now a major hub for higher education, with an outreach beyond the borders of Europe. I think it is now time to turn to countries that already are and will continue to be leaders in innovation. The Polytechnic of Turin already offers a programme, created after a joint agreement with the Polytechnic of Milan and Tongji University in Shanghai, that aims to train engineers in technology and business culture in China and Italy, to strengthen the existing ties between the two countries and meet the needs of the Italian economy.

Are the city of Turin or the government of Italy going to provide financial or other kinds of support to foreign universities that wish to set up an operation in Turin?

The current crisis forces us to optimise the use of existing resources due to cuts in public spending. Despite this difficulty, our citta universitaria project will go ahead, probably with the resources we already have and perhaps through a more efficient use of them. For example, we could improve accommodation provision for students and extend the schedule of the city's public transport service.

Are there any legislative or financial issues specific to Italy that foreign universities should take into account before starting an operation in the country?

I believe that a foreign university aiming to set up an operation in Italy has to go through the Ministry of Education first. On the other hand, I think that foreign universities should consider the quality of life offered in a city before making a choice. When a university, or even a company, decides to set up a branch in another city or another state, the 'hosting capacity' of that city ('territorio urbano') is also taken into account. Turin can boast a unique offering, especially in terms of leisure attractions.

Italy has a strong tradition of regionalism, with extended competencies for municipal and provincial governments. How does that translate to the higher education sector? How can the city of Turin help local universities improve their performance and international strategy?

The Municipality of Turin can help the University and the Polytechnic internationalise their operations by promoting meetings with local businesses, protecting the autonomy of universities, facilitating agreements and providing incentives for professionals working in this sector.

Turin has a tradition in industry and manufacturing and is the home of Fiat and other iconic Italian industries. Does that affect your policy towards higher education and innovation? Are you interested in attracting universities specialising in specific academic fields such as engineering, technology and science?

The connection between academic institutions and businesses is of crucial importance for us. There are 100 corporate research labs at the Polytechnic of Turin. The Polytechnic is an important asset to attract businesses, which increasingly see Turin as a base for R&D operations. Obviously, this has a positive impact on employment.

Several economists such as Dani Rodrik have claimed that the decline of manufacturing in the developed world is one of the reasons why Europe and the US are lagging behind in growth and employment rates. Deindustrialisation is a problem for the Italian economy as well. Do you think that innovation through higher education can reverse this trend and make manufacturing once again the engine for growth in the developed world?

Turin, a capital of manufacturing for over a century, has had to modify and restructure its identity. If you want to develop today you have to focus on knowledge and research. Investment in knowledge is of strategic importance for our society, and should be accompanied by a new approach to the relationship between the city and academic institutions. Institutions producing knowledge and institutions putting it into practice must be closely connected, and of course the university has to become an attractive research hub.

Over the last 10 years education hubs have sprouted in the Middle East and East Asia. Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology won a competition to set up an applied-sciences campus in New York City. Are you interested in an education hub in Turin that would host Italian and foreign universities to do research in partnership with local businesses? Are any existing hubs a model for Turin?

Our goal is to create all the conditions necessary to make Turin a metropolis for higher education, not only by having many students, but also by organising the city around the main centres of knowledge. We are in position to achieve this, first, by completing the ongoing reorganisation of university centres: Italgas, Tobacco Factory, Aldo Moro, Health City, Grugliasco, Citadel polytechnic. At that point the city will become one big campus ('un grande campus'). Then we will work to attract foreign universities in order to increase quality and international scope. We will need more residence halls, which are currently lacking, and we will also have to build new social housing premises for students. In order to achieve this we will establish together with the two universities an agency operating as a moderator between landlords and students.

The current economic crisis in Europe has affected public spending in most European countries, and of course in Italy. The Italian government is expected to curb borrowing by municipal and provincial governments.  How does that affect your plans regarding higher education in Turin? Is investment in higher education and innovation in particular a way to tackle the crisis?

According to an analysis of the impact of the crisis on European universities published in 2011 by the  European University Association,  there are countries such as France that have actually increased {public spending on higher education}, despite the current climate of disinvestment. At this point, it is important to invest in knowledge, focusing on the preservation and proliferation of local and international knowledge centres. We also expect the government to back our policy in this field.

Have you sought funding or other kinds of support from the European Union? Do you think that the EU should provide support to initiatives of this type?

In general the EU does not fund taught education, only research. That could be a fundamental contribution in face of the limited resources provided for higher education by the Italian government due to the economic crisis.

In which ways is Italian higher education different from the Anglosaxon higher education system? Which qualities of the Italian system would you like to keep and which ones to abolish?

The Anglosaxon higher education system is characterised by selectivity and competitiveness, which initially helped create centres of excellence, but then reduced pluralism in academic research by making it too narrow in scope.  Regarding the students, tuition fees are commensurate with the quality of the universities: you pay more to get into the top universities. In Italy we have tried to imitate this model, instead of looking to those systems that focus on public higher education, such as the German, French and Scandinavian ones.

Recent reforms by the Italian government are aiming to boost competition among Italian universities by rewarding economically successful ones and penalising those running a deficit. Should domestic competition be a priority for Italian universities? Does it enhance or curb their international presence and ranking?

Competition, in general is not appropriate to the logic of the higher education. However, improving the international presence and rankings of universities should be part of an effort to improve the performance of universities and enhance knowledge for social and economic purposes.

Italy spent a 1% of its annual GDP for tertiary education in 2008, whereas the average for OECD countries for that year was 1.5%. Furthermore, public expenditure on education has probably declined over the last three years due to the crisis and the austerity measures implemented by the government. Is this an obstacle for growth, or a necessary evil for Italy to overcome the crisis?

Italian universities still produce a number of graduates that is not sufficient to meet the needs of the country, particularly in comparison with the other OECD countries: if we consider the number of graduates in the 25-34 age group, Italy is ranked 34th, 17 places below the average (OECD Education at a Glance 2011). The main reason for this is not the inefficiency of the system, as cumulative expenditure per student is below the average, more specifically 75% lower than average spending in the OECD countries, but the lack of investment. Given that expenditure as a percentage of GDP represents the share of wealth that a country invests in higher education, it is necessary to back higher education as an engine of civil and economic progress.

Alex Katsomitros

The Observatory wishes to thank Dr Denise Di Dio of Camera di Commercio di Milano for her kind help in translating this interview.


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