How Italian Institutions are Weathering the Coronavirus Crisis

university of padua coronavirus

QS recently spoke to two experts from the University of Padua to learn what insights their institution has learned throughout the coronavirus crisis.  

The global higher education sector has rapidly adapted to address the new normal caused by the coronavirus crisis. During these turbulent times, it’s more important than ever to share insights and knowledge across the higher education sector.  

To facilitate this, QS has conducted an ongoing interview series of Italian higher education professionals to listen to their insights into this crisis.  

During this interview series, we’ve spoken to Dr. Eugenio Gaudio, a medical researcher, physician, and Rector of the University of Rome Sapienza; Professor Ferruccio Resta, Rector of Politecnico di Milano and President of the Conference of the Italian Rectors (CRUI); Stefano Ronchi, Rector’s Delegate for International Affairs at Politecnico di Milano; and Gianmario Verona, Rector of Bocconi University.  

This week, we’re getting two perspectives from the University of Padua: the institution’s Rector, Rosario Rizzuto, and Vice-Rector for International Relations, Alessandro Paccagnella. 

Read the full interview below to discover how they’ve responded to the COVID-19 crisis.  

As the coronavirus crisis becomes the new normal, how has the University of Padua changed its operations and communications to adapt to it?   

Rizzuto: At the very beginning of March, the university substantially redesigned its operations to ensure the continuity of all its activities. All classes in each university course are offered on a distance-learning basis, access to laboratories is limited, and professional services staff are working remotely.  

The university has mobilized all its operational and intellectual resources to allow a quick and smooth transition. As a temporary measure, the university has adopted these solutions during the whole second semester.  

Nevertheless, as COVID-19 might really shape a ‘new normal,’ the university will extend some of these measures at least through the first semester of the next academic year, with blended teaching in all courses. The current situation is unpredictable, and we don’t know when travel restrictions will be suspended. Therefore, online learning will be an essential driver to make our services available to our community.  

In this context, communication has played a key role. We have designed our communications in a way that allows us to send direct, clear, and empathetic messages to all our stakeholders, including students, staff, and academic and industrial partners. This approach has proved to be highly effective, we could share transparent and relevant information, provide solid and extensive support, address new and existing needs, and fulfill expectations for our stakeholders. 

Paccagnella: Since the COVID-19 outbreak, it has been immediately clear how this ‘new normal’ could affect international activities. Consequently, we have designed two lines of actions: we have implemented an emergency plan and developed a risk mitigation strategy, responding to short and medium-term needs respectively.  

As for the emergency plan, we have prioritized our support to exchange and international students who are possibly the most affected subjects. Their health and safety have been our main concerns. Then, we promptly mapped their location and we supported them in reaching their host/home country or coming back to Italy.  

Online classes have allowed us to ensure that they could both continue their academic activities and adjust their locations, according to their needs and the existing travel restrictions. A great effort has been made to duly engage the international community. In this regard, the International Relations Division has been organizing online weekly meetings with exchange and international students to go through the measures that have been introduced and to give them the opportunity to ask questions and share any potential concerns 

As for the risk mitigation strategy, we carried out a risk assessment to identify risks and the possible impacts on international activities. We are considering all the different scenarios that we might face in the next few months to make sure that we will be able to take all the essential measures to further develop our international activities and strengthen our global footprint.  

How have your students and staff responded to activities being moved online? Are there any insights that your team gained from online learning? What are its benefits and drawbacks?  

Rizzuto: Both students and staff have responded very positively to online teaching activities. Staff have been required to make an extra effort to redesign teaching materials and record classes, with no delay on the academic calendar nor any reduction in the course content. Students have shown very high attendance rates and are preforming very well during both the exams and graduation sessions.    

Among the benefits of online teaching, flexibility and outreach are worth mentioning. Flexibility provides students with the opportunity to customize class attendance. Outreach to commuter students allows them to save a large amount of time.  

Among the drawbacks, we can highlight difficulties to re-adapt written and quantitative exams and to secure the development of practical activities conducted within our laboratories. Last but not least, the impossibility of celebrating graduation in person, which means students can’t experience this unforgettable event and share it with their families and friends. Nevertheless, these events are taking place online; as soon as the situation gets back to normal, we will organize a dedicated graduation event to make sure that all students can enjoy the celebration of their achievements.  

Paccagnella: Exchange and international students have also responded quite well to online learning. Indeed, students have the chance to continue their activities as they were scheduled. In addition, given the existing travel restrictions, the fact that students can attend classes disregarding their locations has been invaluable.  

On the downside, online teaching cannot fully cover an overall student experience. Exchange and international students normally count on living in a new country and new city, getting to know a new culture, and learning a new language as part of their learning experience.  

Nevertheless, an interesting medium-term strategic implication may arise, online learning and limited travel opportunities could push universities’ experimentation with virtual exchanges, which are more and more vital to increasing the degree of internationalization of universities. Virtual exchanges are also playing a key role in encouraging the so-called ‘internationalization at home, which is already on the agenda of many universities because many students don’t have the opportunity or the financial resources for a study abroad experience.  

What mental and emotional health support are you offering to students? How has this changed as the crisis escalates?  

Rizzuto: The University of Padua has always committed itself to providing its students with psychological support. The university offers a dedicated service, the ‘Psychological Assistance Service,’ which is generally considered as a point of reference for all students encountering psychological difficulties during their studies (anxiety, relationship problems, or academic performance).  

Counselling helps students play a productive role in university life and reap the benefits of their studies. It also provides valuable information and support regarding addiction (smoking, alcohol, drug abuse, eating disorders etc.). The need for support has increased significantly since the COVID-19 outbreak, and the university has made a huge effort so that all students are adequately informed about the existence of such services 

Paccagnella: The mobility experience of exchange and international students is very challenging. They live far from their home countries and far from their families and friends, so the psychological support is particularly important. On top of this, we have offered advice and support to students who are worried about being infected by the virus. Professors at our Medical School have developed extraordinary experience and knowledge dealing with COVID-19 since its outbreak in February and have offered fast and qualified consultancies to students in Italy and abroad. 

How do you think the higher education sector can best respond to the coronavirus outbreak? What industry-wide approach and messaging is the best strategy?  

Rizzuto: The higher education sector is playing a key role in supporting societal efforts in facing COVID-19. Universities can offer their research not only to find a cure and a vaccine, but also to better understand the economic, social, and cultural effects of this virus on our society. With this respect, the University of Padua, along with scientists from all over the world, is at the forefront of this fight against COVID-19.  

The contribution of universities should not be limited to this emergency phase. The coronavirus will deeply affect our economies and will be likely to reshape the labor market.  Universities must become key actors in the development of our economies following the period of recession that we will face. The innovation produced with their own research activities can support national and global economic growth, and teaching activities and innovative curriculum design can help students and graduates to meet the new and future demands of the labor market.  

Paccagnella: Universities are some of the most interconnected actors at global level. Research collaboration, student exchanges, and a growing number of international students have strongly supported the globalization of higher education. These interconnections are invaluable and have produced a large number of global public goods for humankind, as well as for national and local societies.  

Among these, at an individual level we can count cross-border mobility and employability, communication facilitation, knowledge of diverse languages and cultures, and access to global science.  

At collective level, we can count universal global science, diverse knowledge fields, common zone of free critical inquiry, and systems for exchange, collaboration, and mobility. Following this crisis, universities must commit themselves more than ever to communicating the benefits of their international activities and to developing these activities even further to tackle societal and global challenges and secure a sustainable and fair cultural, social, and economic growth. 

To find out more about the higher education sector’s response to the coronavirus, please visit the QS COVID-19 Resources Hub. 


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