University against brain drain: a bridge between talent and local innovation


Institutional Communication Service

26 March 2024

In an in-depth article in Corriere del Ticino, USI Rector Luisa Lambertini reflects on the critical role of the university in counteracting brain drain in Ticino, promoting innovation and the link with the local economy to attract talent and improve salaries.

Over the past few days, I came across two thought-provoking statistics as an economist and as the Rector of USI. The first is the analysis published a few days ago by the Cantonal Statistics Office, which revealed that only half of students from Ticino who study across the Alps return to live and work in Ticino five years after graduation. Conversely, a higher percentage of graduates who study in Ticino tend to remain in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland.

Ticino's school of higher education are playing a significant role in retaining graduates and human capital in our canton. This is an essential indicator for understanding USI's contribution to mitigating brain drain. It is encouraging to see that more and more students from Southern Switzerland are choosing to study at USI, which has become the primary option for Ticino among Swiss universities since last year. It is a positive outcome, particularly given that we do not offer education in all fields.

The second piece of news that gave me reason to pause and reflect is the latest salary structure survey, presented a few days ago by the Federal Statistical Office. According to their survey, Ticino is the large region with the lowest wages. This can be seen as a contributing factor to the increasing number of young people leaving Ticino to work across the Gotthard. In this second aspect, too, I believe that the university has a vital role to play. Although reversing the brain drain trend cannot be done overnight, I am convinced that after 28 years since its foundation, USI is now ready to take on more responsibility in transforming the economic and social landscape in which it operates.

In its 25-28 Planning, through the Pro-rectorate for Innovation, USI aims to strengthen the integration between the university and the local economy. The goal is to maximise the innovative potential of the university's research, education, and third mandate activities. Having witnessed the development of the Lake Geneva arc and the close collaboration between the economic sector and EPFL over the past two decades, I strongly believe in this collaboration for the future of the canton. The university's presence in the region must be leveraged as a strategic asset, and it is essential to improve this collaboration.

Suppose you want to bring back young talent studying and/or working beyond the Gotthard. In that case, you must find a way to attract them back, with decent salaries, of course, but also by generating and supporting innovative initiatives and helping to create an economic fabric that develops beyond the traditional sectors. 

Although I have only been Rector since July last year, I see USI as a centre of expertise with great transformative potential. By offering high-quality education and research opportunities, we will retain more local talent and continue to attract students and scholars beyond the region's borders. This influx of talent already fuels a vibrant intellectual ecosystem, which, if channelled well, can stimulate innovation and economic diversification.

USI's commitment to innovation must become a driving force in Ticino's transition towards new (also) economic perspectives. At USI, we have the skills to seize opportunities. Think of computer science, big data, machine learning, computational biology - just to name a few. There is the potential to launch new realities in sectors that are new to the canton, to significantly increase productivity and efficiency in various sectors, both in new start-ups, as we are already doing thanks to our centres that promote innovative entrepreneurship, and to innovate the broader economic fabric. To do this, we need the support and trust of everyone - public institutions, businesses and private financiers.

At various levels, including at the federal level, I unfortunately see that the economic crisis leads instead to disinvestment in education and research. This is a matter of concern for me because it may have long-term consequences. Even USI will have to prioritize certain areas based on the availability of financial resources, leaving other areas undeveloped. I am worried that these decisions may have a detrimental effect on Switzerland's entire research and development ecosystem. I am not the only one who is concerned about this. The Council of Federal Institutes of Technology is also worried about the budget cuts that have been planned, which may lead to strategic repercussions. Switzerland has a strong reputation for its research and development ecosystem, which is the reason behind its leading position. Still, we must be careful to protect these ecosystems, just like we protect nature, to ensure they continue to bear fruit.