Wednesday, 13 September 2023

A reflection on the future of UniTrento

Rector Flavio Deflorian met with journalists to talk about some key issues

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Rector Flavio Deflorian urged the next provincial administration to support the University and respect its autonomy. He called for a revision of the delegation of power and financial appropriations, more resources to support the University's operation and its building plan, an effort to provide student housing, scholarships and services, a long-term plan for the development of the school of medicine and health professions and the political will to continue to invest in research

"This is serious. It is time to confirm or redefine the model of university we want for Trentino". The message that rector Flavio Deflorian addressed to the policy makers who will be involved in the upcoming election is clear and direct. It is a call to make the University of Trento, and its research and education, a political priority, and an invitation to believe in the University as a driver of the economy and the development of the region.

The University has grown significantly in the past few years and has made important choices with a desire to innovate. These choices have made UniTrento a model university, in top positions in national and international rankings. The University of Trento has always had a strong international dimension: it encourages mobility, attracts and welcomes people, expands the horizons of the territory. At the same time, it has proved to be able to meet the needs of the local community. In this sense, the efforts made to establish the School of Medicine and Surgery demonstrate that it is attentive to local needs.

But what makes the University of Trento stand out is above all its autonomy, including in relation to the local government. "Being able to say no sometimes, to set conditions, to discuss issues respectfully is a great value not only for the University, but it is an exercise of autonomy and freedom that benefits all," commented the rector. "The model of university that we have created, however, must be strengthened every day. And this is the time to do it, because the University is going through a crucial phase of its history".

The Rector highlighted four issues.
Delegation of power and financial resources – The crux is how the delegation of powers is exercised. "We need to work together on the review of resources," said Deflorian. The provision of funding for extraordinary expenses, such as the School of Medicine, is welcome. But it will be difficult to maintain today's level of performance without investments that guarantee the basic functioning of the University."

"We closed the 2022 financial statements with a deficit of over 4 million. Based on our estimates, the situation will worsen in 2023, with a deficit between 10 and 15 million – he explains. This imbalance is largely due to staff costs. On the one hand, there is the automatic adjustment of salaries to the cost of living, which is not covered by state funds; on the other, the number of staff members has increased, mainly because of development projects funded on a merit basis. This item is only partially covered by ministerial funding".

The other higher costs are largely due to the steep increase in property management and maintenance costs. "The lack of a provincial building plan with adequate funding makes the situation worse because we are unable to improve energy efficiency and the sustainability of management costs".

The issue of funding is determinant: "We will do our part by reducing costs. But you can't solve the problem solely by cutting expenses – the rector points out. We need a structural adjustment of the basic funds provided by the Autonomous Province of Trento, to cover the higher operating expenses. Since the agreement was passed, 12 years ago, under the delegated law, the University has grown and the economic situation has changed enormously. But the funds have remained unchanged. Expenses can be cut across various areas at UniTrento. Staff turnover, student services and the offer of courses could be affected for example, and new initiatives proposed by the local community may never see the light".

Right to Study – Student services are separate chapter. For years, the University has borne costs that should be borne by Opera Universitaria, the provincial organization for the right to study. There is a lack of housing supply for students who come from outside the province. They are about 10,000, 65% of the total. At the moment we are only able to offer 1,100 places in halls of residence, for half of those who would be entitled to accommodation and only 10% of those who come from out of Trento. Besides, there are about a thousand doctoral students who are looking for accommodation. Finding a place to rent on the private market has become difficult, as many home owner now prefer renting to tourists.

The funds that the University provides to promote international mobility may be cut too. "The additional scholarships we offer our students, so that they can have the opportunity to study abroad, and to welcome students from other countries, are part of a strategy that over the years has made us a highly international university. Now these costs are no longer sustainable for us".

School of Medicine and health professions – Rector Deflorian also touched on the development of the Department of medicine and health professions. "The feeling we have is that School of Medicine has reached a turning point. We have achieved important results with the launch of the degree programme in medicine and surgery. But now we need some adjustments to the other programmes of the School of Medicine. We all agree that without graduate schools the entire project is meaningless. These schools were not taken into account in the first provincial funding plan: these are living costs that the university must bear. The idea of gradually absorbing the health professions, which are currently managed by Apss (the provincial healthcare service) with UniVerona, cannot be taken for granted. It would require the recruitment of new teaching staff, for example."

Leadership of the research system – The rector concluded his speech with a reflection on the relations with research organizations, on the future of the "research system" on which various provincial governments have invested. "The problems we have been facing for too long are related to the lack of spaces and resources. And this can be clearly seen in the relations with the Mach Foundation for the University project of the Agriculture Food Environment Center (C3A). It took a lot of time and efforts to make things work.

And to make the most of the joint project to promote research and education on issues of sustainability, environmental protection and the valorization of Trentino, as demanded by the local communities. The University and the Mach Foundation have done everything they could to overcome the difficulties. But what we need now is the political will to focus on developing this project. And this is what we ask the next provincial government".