USI Lugano: The best of international education in Switzerland

For the second episode of the “Extra Credit” podcast series, Study International heads to Switzerland, the dream destination of many international students. 

We spoke to Professor Lorenzo Cantoni, the Deputy Rector* and Pro-rector for Education and Students’ experience at Università della Svizzera italiana (USI Lugano) on how the country and the university are microcosms of the world – and how an education here is not only impactful and inspiring, but will take you far in your career and life.

Listen below, and wherever you get your podcasts.

*This podcast was recorded in May 2023. As of July 2023, Prof. Luisa Lambertini is the new Rector of Università della Svizzera italiana, whilst Prof. Lorenzo Cantoni is the Pro-rector for Education and Students’ experience.

The transcript below has been lightly edited for grammar, spelling and clarity.

Shekinah Kannan: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the one the only Extra Credit podcast. Every month we invite you to a conversation with an international student, graduate or professor about the beauty, boldness and benefits of studying abroad. My name is Shekinah and I’m your host for today’s episode with Università della Svizzera italiana’s — or USI Lugano, in short — Professor Lorenzo Cantoni. Prof. Cantoni is the Deputy Rector and Pro-rector for Education and Students’ experience. He is also the director of the Institute of Digital Technologies for Communication. All of which means he knows a lot about USI Lugano, why it’s a great uni in a great country and why students love it here. 

Professor Cantoni thank you for joining us today. And welcome. How are you?

Professor Lorenzo Cantoni: Thank you. Very fine, thanks. Really happy to have this conversation with you and hope to answer your questions which might be shared by many students around the planet.

Shekinah: Definitely, I think everyone’s going to enjoy it very much. I was also greatly looking forward to this conversation. So without further ado, let’s jump right into it with a bit of backstory. For those who don’t know, USI Lugano is one of the 12 certified public universities in Switzerland. It offers degree programmes in several areas, including architecture, communication, sciences, computational sciences, data science, economics, and medicine. So Prof. Cantoni, in your opinion, what are three factors that these degrees stand out?

Professor Cantoni: Thank you for the question. I would say, first of all, being international for us is so important as a university. In fact, recently we have been recognised as the most international university in Switzerland. And I believe that attracts many students from all over the world, because in a sense, it’s kind of a microcosmos, staying here in Lugano. A second very important reason is being research-intensive. So what we teach in our classes, especially at the master level, is really rooted in what we do at the research level. All our instructors have a PhD. And what we present is what we have researched ourselves, what we have extensively published about. I think that’s very important. We do not just replicate or present knowledge about different disciplines. But really, we invite students to participate in research. And another element is innovativeness. We are really, in many fields, on the bleeding edge of innovation. And at the same time, always stressing responsibility. For us, it’s very important that research should be free, but at the same time should be responsible. We have in mind the main challenges worldwide and are always including the sustainable development goals in our teaching.

Shekinah: Definitely, I think that’s such a great point, especially since, you know, students don’t just want to gain research skills, they want to be a part of it, and they want to see firsthand what their professors are accomplishing. That’s really good to know. And I love what you said about the diversity as well, which is something we’re going to cover later on in another question. But with all this in mind, I guess it’s pretty easy to understand why USI Lugano is ranked 15th in the World’s Best Small Universities 2022. That’s universities with less than 5,000 students. It’s also ranked 26the worldwide in QS Top 50 Under 50 2021. That’s less than 50 years old. How did such a young university achieve these rankings so quickly?

Professor Cantoni: First of all, let’s say investing in talent. Around one-tenth of our students are PhD candidates. And so we are really focused on talents. We want to ensure that they can stay with us and they can enjoy learning, studying, doing research with us. Room for creativity is also a fundamental importance. When we started there was as little paperwork as possible. No bureaucracy. Really offering all our learners and researchers the possibility of expressing themselves and finding their own ways in order to improve knowledge in the respective disciplines. And last but not least, passion. What we do is really because we are passionate about what I was mentioning beforehand, the topic of responsibility. And so here again, we combine passion with responsibility, we do research and teaching with a great passion and having in mind that we are really contributing to the future of our society. So I was mentioning the Sustainable Development Goals, I believe that a university is, in itself, one of the most sustainable institutions because we are really deeply focused on future generations. This is what moves us.

Shekinah: I guess as a university that’s making so many discoveries, it’s definitely an institution that evolves with time, you know, to stay ahead and to keep students relevant. And with that being said, what’s next for USI Lugano? What does the university plan to achieve in the next few years? And what can international students look forward to?

Professor Cantoni: Yes, we are refining all our programmes. This is something we do every year, in order to be sure that they are fully aligned with the current research and state of the ICT on the one side, and also aligned with the job market on the other side. That’s very important, especially at the master’s level. For us, it’s important to ensure that what learners learn with us is relevant for their future careers. For sure, it’s not the only goal. The main goal for the university is ensuring that we really cultivate the next generation, with a really broad mind and able to face unknown or unforeseen situations. I mean, like it’s normal nowadays. But at the same time, we are also closely connected with the industry at large in the different sectors in order to ensure that what we provide is highly relevant for them. We are changing our programmes and we are going to launch new programmes in the future. For instance, combining economics and informatics, having a closer focus on artificial intelligence. Also, new programmes will be offered in the coming years. Other than that, I think we are really ensuring that this passion, which moves us, is constantly nurtured by new professors, new researchers, new TAs, in order to continue this sense of being in a family fully focused on knowledge and research.

Shekinah: Could you elaborate slightly on the way these programmes are updated? You know, I’m sure there’s a lot of foundational elements to them. But as you mentioned, with each discovery that is made, course offerings have to be updated. Could you talk me through that process?

Professor Cantoni: Yeah, absolutely. I might use as an example, a programme we have recently launched, which is Digital Fashion Communication. It is a master’s programme, a double degree together with Panthéon-Sorbonne University. In order to design the programme on the one side, we benchmarked more than 100 programmes globally, to see how they were covering digital media, especially digital communication. And we started using automatic tools — more than 1,400 open positions on LinkedIn in this domain in order to map all the needed competencies and pieces of knowledge in the field. And then we designed a programme in order to ensure that about 100 pieces of knowledge and competencies, which we mapped onto the different courses so to ensure that collectively, all the courses could cover the needed knowledge. In that sense, we ensured that what we were going to offer was really what was needed in the market and what was called responding to the state-of-the-art knowledge. We have a series of conferences about fashion communication in order to ensure that the educational offer was really aligned with the research globally. In some programmes, we have courses which are changing every year. In another programme, International Tourism, there is a course which is just titled “Tourism Stories (Hub),” and then we invite every a different instructors depending on the different topics or trends. Dr. Tony Wheeler will be teaching there, the very famous founder of Lonely Planet. So every year we offer new opportunities for learning, ensuring everything is really updated.

Shekinah: That’s incredible. That’s definitely something we know a lot of students are interested in, you know how relevant their courses are, and how well they will prepare them for this job market and the ones to come in the future. Something else that, you know, interests students is how the university supports them throughout the end-to-end process, and that includes getting to the university. I think a good example would be you know, in the last few years, international students were definitely shocked at not being able to travel to certain places, because of the pandemic. Could you walk us through how USI Lugano supported students during this period? And what were the lessons that the university learned on how to best support students?

Professor Cantoni: Definitely, it has been a very tough period, but this same time was also full of opportunities. First of all, we have a centre called the Learning Lab, which enabled us to switch from in-person classes to online classes without losing any single hour. We were very proud of it because we know that other universities had to stop for one week or a few weeks. We didn’t stop for any second, then we launched an exceptional opportunity for all the employees and associations and organisations outside of the university to collect money for our students. And we managed to support more than 100 of them which had been deeply affected by COVID. We also established psychological support to students in distress because of the situation. I can say that we really managed to help different students or student associations who ran activities to keep in touch with all the students. And that has been really, really helpful. In that sense, we are continuing this kind of support for students who cannot pay, for instance, tuition fees for any reason for one semester. We are ensuring that all the materials are digitally available.

However, presence, for us, is very important. For us, inviting students to Ghana and having them here interacting not only formally in the classes, but also informally in the corridors in the canteen and around the city Lugano. In Mendrisio, where we have the architecture campus, this is very important. Nowadays, all our classes are in person, and we are so happy to welcome all the students. 

Shekinah: And clearly, they’re very happy to be welcomed by you, which is definitely why your university is home to so many international students. Which brings us to this question. Reading the news today it can feel like the world is increasingly polarised with little chance of bringing people together. USI Lugano, however, is home to students who come from 115 countries. What’s the university’s secret and bring the world together? 

Professor Cantoni: Yeah, I would say the Swiss brand. Switzerland is a very well-known country, which is open to everybody globally. So Swiss neutrality is highly known and no one feels threatened or not welcome here. Another very important element for me is that not only learners are from all over the world, but also instructors. And that helps a lot because if you’re coming from the US, you will have some US professors teaching in your classes. You can always refer or have conversations with instructors or teaching assistants who might come from your own country. It’s not just that all the instructors are from Switzerland, while students are coming from all over the planet. This is the very origin of the term, “universitas.” The origin of the university in Latin meant the group of all the instructors and learners from all over the world.  Another element is selection, especially for master’s programmes, people are joining them, not only because of the instructors. We, as instructors, are happy and proud if students came because we are teaching but more and more they are coming because of their peers. They’re coming because they know that they will set up their first professional network in the university, meeting so many different colleagues from different cultures and learning backgrounds. In that sense, this is a huge opportunity for them. Students value that opportunity very much. 

Shekinah: Despite the fact that they come from different ends of the world, it’s very interesting that a lot of them go on to achieve similar success. There’s a number — as many as 92.8% of students find employment one year after graduating from USI Lugano. Can you offer us insights beyond the statistics please, including your favorite student success story? 

Professor Cantoni: Yea, sure. That’s very important. On the one hand, there is opportunity for learners to find a job everywhere. So most of our master’s courses are in English. The Bachelor in Informatics is in English. As soon as they finish their programmes, they can really apply everywhere on the planet. Some of them stay in Switzerland, but definitely it’s not the majority of them, since we have so many international students. For some, the main thing, for instance, of fashion I was mentioning before, being close to Italy is again, very important close to Milan, but also for informatics, for instance, or economics. So that’s very important again. So having a very close network of collaborations, having double degrees, where learners study policy with us and Python with other universities. I was mentioning the right close collaboration with companies. For instance, around one week ago, we had this long night of careers with more than 500 employers staying all over I mean, starting from 6 p.m. up to 10 p.m., with the learners discussing with them, meeting them, running workshops, discussing CVs and of course offering internships as well as a full-time or part-time job. So in that sense, that collaboration run by our career services is very important to ensure that overall average you have mentioned. I mentioned the digital fashion communication programme — 46% of the learners find they are occupied before finishing the master’s programme. And the average time to get a job is just 1.5 months. Depending on the different programmes, the figures might be slightly different. But all in all, we have really exceptional figures in terms of employability. 

Shekinah: You mentioned that there’s a portion of students who choose to stay in Switzerland once they graduate. That’s great. I’m sure the fact that the university has so many partnerships and staff definitely has something to do with it as well. It’s understandable why anyone would want to stay in Switzerland, which is the third most important financial centre and a conference, banking and business centre. And it’s been described as a place where people enjoy, please help me out here, “dolce far niente.” Yeah, you’re laughing at me. 

Professor Cantoni: Lugano is a famous tourist destination. Super nice place. It’s in the southernmost part of Switzerland, the one in which Italian is the most spoken language, and enjoys some Mediterranean climate. Today, it is sunny outside. There are several advantages. I was mentioning English many times, and our conversation is being held in English. But all our learners can learn without paying anything additional. We offer free courses in the Italian language, as well as free courses in the French and German languages, which are the national official Swiss languages. German, French, and Italian, together with Romansh which is unfortunately not offered as of now. Being very close to Zurich. It’s just two hours by train to the economic capital of Switzerland. To the south is Milan, which is less than one hour by train. Think of Florence, Venice, Rome too. So it’s really a fantastic position in the middle of Europe where learners can not only study with us, but use it as a base camp to explore Europe. In the past centuries, there was that so-called Grand Tour, so the opportunity for young learners to really experience the European culture, I would say here in Lugano, this is really something you can do quite easily and learning not only from your instructors from your peers, but also from the culture, the art, the traditions here in Switzerland at large. Nearby is Italy, and also Germany, France, Austria — really very close to us. So international students really do enjoy having this opportunity to explore the continent. 

Shekinah: Perhaps you could talk about your favourite part of living in Switzerland, like the things that you feel that you enjoy that international students might enjoy as well. 

Professor Cantoni: Yeah, unfortunately, let’s start with an element we do not have in Switzerland which is the sea. But I mean, you can go to Italy and enjoy as much sea as you like, but we have a lot of lakes and mountains. Lugano Bay has two mountains around it. Going to the mountains from here is less than one hour and the same time. I live in Ligornetto nearby Mendrisio, where we have the architecture campus and the lake is just five kilometres away while the mountains are very close. So this very rich nature where you can commute from lakes, the mountains so you can enjoy nature and explore culture — this what our learners really do enjoy the most. 

Shekinah: Sounds amazing sounds like a place I’d like to go to as well. 

Professor Cantoni: You should for your vacation. I wasn’t mentioning sports, but we have a full offer for university sports. We have a gym ourselves and so many learners enjoy also doing sports activities, enjoying our facilities. We have courses ranging from calisthenics to hiking, from stand up paddling to skiing, so that they have many offers.

Shekinah: Do you have any favourite facilities, professor? 

Professor Cantoni: As pro-rector for Education and Students’ experience, I oversee the gym and sports, so I would recommend new learners to explore if there’s anything they might like. And recently, we have also launched electric mountain bikes so learners can really enjoy the scenery and clean air by going around and bicycling around. 

Shekinah: It’s great. Sounds like a great excursion. Yeah, I think our entire conversation was a great summary of what the USI Lugano experience is all about. And if that doesn’t compel students, I don’t really know what will. Professor Cantoni, thank you so much for dedicating this portion of your day to us as you’ve been incredibly insightful and such a delight to speak to. So to all our listeners, if you’re interested in learning more about USI Lugano, everything you need to know can be found on for the English version. You can also add them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and of course, LinkedIn. And that’s a wrap for today’s episode. Thank you all so much for tuning in and spending time with us. If you have any comments or suggestions for future episodes, we’d love to hear from you. You can find us on social media at Study International on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. Feel free to drop us a message on whichever is your favourite. Your input will certainly help us bring you even greater content in the future. So until next time, take care and keep learning.