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University and knowledge: challenges of the Draghi Plan and polytechnics training “philosophical engineers”

Restarting from the perspective of knowledge”, asserts Ferruccio Resta, in order to go “from classrooms left empty by the virus towards a new central role for universities.” Resta is rector of the Milan Polytechnic and current president of CRUI, the Conference of Italian University Rectors. He’s an engineer, professor of Applied Mechanics for Machinery – the expression “civilisation of machines” suits him well. And in his new book, structured through a dialogue with Ferruccio de Bortoli and published by Bollati Boringhieri, he argues not only about the need to invest heavily in education, in order to make Italy more competitive in these times where the “knowledge economy” is prevalent, but also about the content of education, combining, in an original way, technology and beauty, humanistic thought and scientific knowledge, mathematics and literature, engineering and philosophy – just like the greatest Italian history of culture and economics teaches us. What we need is a “polytechnic culture”, together with its “industrial humanism” – extraordinarily relevant nowadays –, which in these times of digital economy and Artificial Intelligence should also be understood in terms of “digital humanism” (all themes that, by the by, we’ve addresses in this blog).

The PNRR, or “Piano nazionale di ripresa e resilienza” (National recovery and resilience plan), i.e. the Italian version of the EU’s Recovery Plan, allocates 31.9 billions to Education and Research in order to strengthen “the education system, digital and technical-scientific skills, research and technology transfer”, as explained by Palazzo Chigi in a press release. More in detail, “the Plan invests in nurseries, kindergartens, and childcare services; it creates 152,000 places for children up to three years old and 76,000 for children between three and six years old.” Investments will also be made in the structural restoration of school buildings, with the aim of renovating a total area of 2,400,000 square metres. And, as far as educational content is concerned, there are plans to shift focus and to reform doctoral and degree courses – for instance, by updating the regulations governing doctoral programmes and having them increase by about 3,000 units. Another press release by Palazzo Chigi states that the aim is to “develop vocational education and strengthen the chain of research and technology transfer” while paying particular attention to higher technical institutions, in order to increase the number of enrolled students, enhance laboratories with 4.0 technologies, train teachers and adapt the training programmes to the needs of businesses looking for qualified human capital, and develop a national platform for those offering and seeking jobs.

In short, we are faced with substantial resources and ambitious projects to be executed in a short period of time (by 2026 at the latest). Essentially, the Draghi government has made a move. Here, too, the EU reiterates the underlying meaning of its Recovery Plan’s strategy, in line with its fundamental direction and aptly suggested by its name, “Next Generation”. What needs to be done now is to promptly switch from the written Plan to the actual “worksites”, to choosing educational programmes and put them into practice.

Resta and de Bortoli’s book offers valuable indications on how to make universities and research work better, on how to strengthen the dialogue between university, local community and businesses, and on how to design higher education programmes that take into account the rapid development of new knowledge and therefore the equally intense deterioration of what we know today.

We need to teach how to learn and face a second challenge brought on precisely by sweeping technological changes: the challenge of understanding why we do certain things, of investigating benchmarks, human consequences and the ethics entailed in technological progress. Therefore, not only knowing how to effectively write Artificial Intelligence algorithms, but also understanding how to control and govern their impact. This to avoid secret machinations (as admonished by Luciano Floridi, professor of Philosophy of Information at the University of Oxford) and try to reconciliate high-tech development, freedom and responsibility – just as today’s philosophical engineers and poetical technologists are supposed to do.

University disciplines, Resta suggests, should no longer be constricted by rigid frameworks and, with the polytechnics in mind, he goes on to say, “Today, engineers are no longer technicians dealing with a single problem – they also need to respond to social challenges and complex issues that increasingly involve the ethics of technology. Indeed, the basic directives for the EU’s Recovery Plan, relating to environment and innovation, sustainability and digital economy, require people and professionals who are trained in a multidisciplinary way and are able to assimilate and originally synthesise knowledge that is in constant evolution.

In short, Italy urgently needs to invest in education and training, research and innovation, and the Recovery Plan’s financial resources and reforms are, ultimately, the right tool to achieve this, in order to build the culture of the future, as well as develop skills, productivity and competition. We need to fill a gap that comprises 13 billion people holding only a secondary school diploma, inadequate training and a low number of university graduates, especially in scientific subjects. And so we must develop a better education system, not only in schools but also outside of them, as part of that long-term relationship that should exist between education and work: what is technically called lifelong learning, which embodies the attitude of willing to pursue knowledge throughout our life. From this viewpoint, too, the role of universities as enlightened, open and effective institutions in term of educational processes is, as Resta says, crucial – education is our best future.