Ties between Italian and Chinese academic institutions are set to strengthen with the opening of a branch of eastern China's Ningbo University in Florence, the first Chinese branch campus in the country.
A campus building has been identified in the Tuscan capital for exclusive use by Ningbo and the first Chinese professors and students will arrive in September.
The project was sealed by a formal agreement struck late last year between the municipal authorities of Ningbo, in Zhejiang Province, and Florence, when a Chinese delegation visited the city.
The Florence municipal council has agreed to provide a physical structure for the campus, while running costs will be borne by Ningbo University, which has 23,000 students in China.
Florentine officials say that as the agreement is between the council and Ningbo, it does not need ministerial authorisation. But the government will not regard it as an official campus regulated under Italian higher education rules – for this to happen, ministerial authorisation would be needed.
While the first students and professors, just 10 and two respectively, to arrive this year will be hosted by a local institution, an ex-courthouse building in the city centre has been earmarked as a likely site for the future campus, enabling the project to mushroom in size.
Florentine local councillor and Ningbo city honorary citizen Mario Razzanelli has been instrumental in developing the collaboration between the two cities after a series of cultural exchanges that began in 2003. Over the years these have included the donation of two replica sculptures, one of Michelangelo's David and one of Florentine statesman and poet Dante, to the city of Ningbo by Florence.
“Often these agreements between institutions come to nothing but in this case we have something concrete happening. Political will is important and that is certainly there,” Razzanelli told University World News.
He said that although practical details such as housing were still being finalised, the first courses to be run in Italy by the Chinese institution would be focused on art and culture, taking advantage of Florence’s trove of art treasures. Students will also undertake English language courses.
“I have been to China 30 times and language is perhaps the biggest barrier to overcome. An Italian who goes to China and doesn't speak either Chinese or English is lost. Students who come here must likewise be able to speak at least English,” Razzanelli said.
Italy is an increasingly attractive destination for Chinese students who wish to study abroad and the country has actively encouraged Chinese student participation in recent years though the Italian government’s Marco Polo overseas study programme.
It allows Chinese students to arrive six months before their tertiary course commences to undertake Italian language studies, also giving universities the discretion to reserve course places for Marco Polo participants.
The programme has seen constant growth since its launch in 2004 and Chinese students are now the second largest national grouping of foreign university students in Italy, after Albanians. Chinese students numbered 5,269 last year, up from just 74 in 2003.
Florence is a strategic location for a Chinese university, not only due to its cultural history – it is regarded as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance – but also as a centre of modern industry.
The nearby city of Prato, 18 kilometres to the west, is home to the biggest Chinese community in Italy and one of the country’s biggest garment districts, where Chinese participation both as business owners and in the local work force is significant.
Dozens of foreign campuses are based in Italy and the country reaps significant benefits from so-called academic tourism.
A 2008 study by the Tuscan Regional Institute for Economic Planning estimated that as many as 12% of visitors to national monuments and sites of historic interest were foreign students, contributing EUR397 million (US$508 million) directly to the local economy or as much as EUR632 million when combined with indirect expenditure.
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