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Statuesque and with a patrician air, Andrea Sironi could just as easily pass for an Italian diplomat as an academic. But since October 2012 the highly regarded finance professor has been using his ambassadorial skills to promote one of Italy’s most prestigious institutions, as rector of Bocconi University in Milan.

Bocconi, one of Italy’s few private universities, boasts an alumni list to die for. Vittorio Colao, chief executive of telecommunications company Vodafone, Mario Monti, former Italian prime minister, and even Dutch footballer Clarence Seedorf studied there.

Though himself a Bocconi man through and through, he studied and has spent most of his working life there, Prof Sironi is on a mission to change the school’s elitist reputation, which he believes sits uneasily in Italy today. “We need to promote social mobility, which in our country is very, very weak. It is very, very important for me to do this and to communicate this.”

It is a message alumni have warmed to, he says, and, crucially, are prepared to fund. The school already has €24m in scholarships and tuition waivers and plans to increase that to €30m by 2020.

But it is a message that goes beyond scholarships. Bocconi staff are scouring local high schools to find the brightest candidates. “We search for young kids in the suburbs of Milan,” says Prof Sironi.

Developing a social mobility agenda is one of two priorities pinpointed by the rector; the second is to make Bocconi a big player on the world scene, not just a household name in Italy.

It is an agenda to which Prof Sironi has been working for at least a decade in his managerial roles at Bocconi, notably persuading professors they should teach and publish their research in English, rather than Italian. Last year, he was also appointed as chairman of Cems, the network of international business schools that teach masters programmes.

Now his strategy involves ensuring that all 14,000 Bocconi students, most of whom study business, have some kind of international experience.

As well as shoring up applications at home, there is a real need to attract more from abroad, he says. “Bocconi has always relied on being a dominant player in the country, but now there is more mobility, especially at the graduate level.”

While 71 per cent of MBA students in 2014 were foreign, for example, up from 60 per cent in 2010, he wants more. Recent economic problems in Italy do not make this easy, but the city of Milan plays an important role in attracting students, believes Prof Sironi.

The city commands global respect as a cultural centre — Milan Fashion Week and La Scala opera are influential worldwide. It also revels in a reputation for good food and wine, is home to many luxury goods companies and boasts two of Europe’s biggest football clubs.

“There are 170,000 students in [the city],”says Prof Sironi. People like the idea of moving to Milan, we enjoy a good and increasing brand reputation. We attract specialist students from France and Germany, countries with high-quality institutions.”

The university is building a strong reputation among international academics, says Prof Sironi. Of the 12 recently appointed junior academics, for example, eight are from overseas.

There have been other successes too. For example, it has attracted more grants from the European Research Council for research into economics, management and finance than any other institution, asserts the rector. And in spite of Italy’s economic woes, more than 94 per cent of Bocconi’s masters-level students are employed within 12 months of graduation.

Campus renewal: Bocconi’s Via Roentgen faculty building, named World Building of the Year for 2008

Bocconi is investing heavily in its buildings. Its proposed new campus will increase the size of the university by two-thirds, pushing up the number of residential spaces to 2,000, as well as incorporating a high-tech teaching centre and leisure facilities, including an Olympic-size swimming pool.

“This will not increase the number of students,” says Prof Sironi, but he hopes those who do apply will be of a higher quality.

In executive education, Bocconi collaborates with top business schools such as Wharton in the US and Esade in Spain in open-enrolment and customised programmes. The recession, combined with a tighter focus, has meant that in the past few years the school has halved its number of open-enrolment programmes and seminars, but growth is back on the agenda. “We have an explicit objective to do more international executive education,” says Prof Sironi, who points to potential corporate partners in Brazil and India.

The school could be successful in India, where it was one of the first European universities to invest, opening a branch campus there three years ago. But the development of the campus has not been plain sailing. “It’s a huge effort in terms of human resources,” admits Prof Sironi. “Our faculty costs are European; our revenues are Indian.”

Bocconi is, therefore, looking to hire local professors to ensure the university can break even. Prof Sironi is confident the Indian venture is beginning to develop a high-quality reputation. “The important thing now is that there is the trust,” he says.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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