QS World University Rankings 2021: Q&A with USI - Università della Svizzera Italiana | Top Universities

QS World University Rankings 2021: Q&A with USI - Università della Svizzera Italiana

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Julia Gilmore

Updated Jun 09, 2022



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The recently released QS World University Rankings 2021 features 1,000 of the best universities in the world, assessed based on a finely-honed methodology that considers the most important aspects of a university, including academic and employer reputation and diversity in both students and faculties.

This year, Switzerland’s USI - Università della Svizzera Italiana is the highest-ranked new entrant in the table at joint 273rd in the world, placing in the world top 10 for the international students’ indicator and 17th in the international faculty indicator. We spoke to Professor Lorenzo Cantoni, Pro-Rector for education and students' experience at USI, to find out more about this truly international institution. 

What sets you apart from the universities you consider to be your competitors?

USI is a young university, it opened its doors for the first time in 1996. Since then, it has enjoyed constant growth, while at the same time remaining a small-size institution, with an ideal ratio between faculty members and students of one to seven. 

Its international environment – which is very Swiss, I would say – and its focus on research make USI a fast moving, flexible, and attractive institution both for researchers as well as for students.

The inclusion as highest-ranking new entrant in the QS World University Rankings, is an honor for us and, as we believe, a sign of our commitment to quality. 

How important are international students to you as a university?

They are an essential part of who and what we are. Switzerland has a recognized vocation of international dialogue and inclusion, rooted in its history as a multilingual and multicultural country, which values all communities and minorities.

From the very beginning, USI has attracted students and professors from several countries. The adoption of the Bologna system, which has made inter-university mobility much easier, as well as the fact that most programs are taught in English, has helped to scale-up our internationality, up to the current situation, with about two thirds of our students coming from outside of Switzerland, and representing 96 different nationalities. So many international students create a very inspiring and stimulating environment, which helps USI to be more and more consistent with the very nature of a university – to be universal!

How does your location contribute to student experience?

If we think of our campuses and buildings, they are constantly open and accessible to students 24/7, 365 days of the year (apart from a few days a year, at the Mendrisio Campus). 

Both the cities of Mendrisio (where the Academy of Architecture is located) and Lugano (with all other faculties) are small and very welcoming. Switzerland’s quality of life, which combines tradition and innovation, is particularly conducive to a great learning experience. Additionally, we are just two hours by train from Zurich and one hour from Milan, Italy, offering endless cultural opportunities.

What role does research play in the success of your university?

A fundamental one. USI is a research-intensive university. More than 10 percent of our students pursue a PhD: many of them are involved in research projects funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation or by European Union programs. Our Research and Transfer Service is very active in supporting research activities, from the very definition of suitable funding lines, up to helping to write projects and manage them.

Research activities at USI range from very fundamental to more applied ones. Recently, for instance, Twitter has acquired Fabula AI, a company founded by a team of USI researchers headed by one of our professors. 

Research is closely connected with teaching, ensuring that our courses are constantly updated and beyond the state-of-the-art.

How does your institution help prepare students for the world of employment?

We have several activities aimed at that.

First of all, when designing our study programs, especially at the master’s level, we keep in mind relevant industries or professional roles. In this respect, we invite, on a regular basis, people from the industry to present their experience in class or during ad-hoc events, like at our yearly “Long Night of the Careers”. Also, many programs include either a curricular internship or a field project, which can also be the basis for writing the final thesis. 

We have a very active Career Service, which supports students in finding internships or jobs, constantly monitors the market, follows the career of our alumni, and puts current students in contact with potential employers.

This approach is applied throughout the university, but there are also initiatives specific to individual programs. For instance, at the Academy of Architecture, students are required to have a full year of practical experience in an architect’s studio; the Faculty of Informatics runs practical industry-oriented activities; the master’s in medicine includes bed-side teaching right from the beginning of the program.

There are also ad-hoc courses, designed to connect theoretical knowledge with the relevant industries. For instance, we have a “Tourism Career Lab” in the master’s in international tourism, or the course on “Digital Fashion Communication: Conversations with Industry Experts”, which are run by our Faculties of Economics and of Communication, Culture and Society. 

We also have several double or joint degrees, as well as mobility programs, which help students to visit other countries and learn to cope with different contexts, improving their ability to work in international and highly intercultural environments. Last, but not least, the extensive use of digital communication technologies and a focus on sustainability are very important “assets” for the employability of our students.

How can you foresee the current covid-19 pandemic affecting university life?

Because of the Coronavirus crisis, we had to close the University for several weeks, and to move all teaching and research activities online. The shift to eLearning has been done very smoothly, without losing a single day of the semester, also thanks to our eLearning Lab, which supports all ICT-related teaching/learning activities.

I have been really pleased by the resilience of our students and instructors, who have supported each other, and have kept alive – although in a different way – an active “university life”. Digital media have been fundamental in this: to keep a sense of belonging and to make visible all university activities, even when they were done within everyone’s homes. The academic community has documented such experience also through an ad-hoc hashtag on social media: #USIeLeaning.

We are now designing a scenario for the first semester of 2020-21, which foresees blended learning activities, on campus – while ensuring all social distancing and health-related measures – as well as online, to provide the best possible experience to our learners and also to our instructors.

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