The University of Milan-Bicocca’s medical school, sometimes referred to as Bicocca and sometimes as Bergamo because of the location of its teaching hospital, has jumped into the pool of English med schools in Italy as the second most difficult to get into for EU-affiliated applicants, after IMS Milan. However, accurate public information about Bicocca, outside of the school’s own online publications, is extremely hard to track down. Nobody has published any independent review of Bicocca. No current students blog about Bicocca. Nonetheless, I regularly encounter messages, from prospective applicants, asking what the school is like.
So, I’ve decided to research Bicocca myself. What you’re about to read took many hours to figure out and then doublecheck. There may be errors — if you find one, please let me know — and I’ve done my best to be as fair and accurate as possible. Hopefully, this information will help you decide whether or not you want to apply to Bicocca.
We’ll divide this profile into three sections:
The first thing that needs to be clarified about the Bicocca English med school is its location. What you need to be aware of is that the school is the result of a collaboration of three universities: the University of Milan-Bicocca, the University of Bergamo, and the University of Surrey, England. (The extent of cooperation with Surrey is something we’ll discuss in more detail, below.) The University of Milan-Bicocca itself is a public school, founded in the 1990s in Bicocca, a section of northern Milan:
We can zoom the map out, so you get more of a sense of where Bicocca is, in Italy, and its location relative to Bergamo, a completely separate city in the same province, Lombardy. Bergamo is 45 kilometers — over an hour train ride — from Bicocca.
According to a newspaper story about the med school, instruction mostly takes place in Bergamo. The story says that lectures and labs occur at two locations in Bergamo. However, as we’ll see, that may not exactly be correct. I couldn’t confirm any exact information about class locations from the school itself.
The first location in the newspaper story is Papa Giovanni XXIII (Pope John XXIII) Hospital, opened in 2012, located three kilometers from the city center of Bergamo. There’s a bus that runs directly from the Bergamo main railway station to the hospital — a 13 minute ride — and the hospital actually has its own train station, served by a local suburban line.
The second location, according to the article, is the University of Bergamo, which has classroom buildings throughout the city. It may very well be true that there are classes in Bergamo outside the hospital. However, the University of Bergamo does not actually have its own med school. Furthermore, according to student reports, some academic lectures are actually held at the separate Bicocca satellite medical campus in a third city, named Monza, also in Lombardy:
One of the Bicocca students wrote on the Facebook post linked above that “our classes are Tuesday to Friday at the hospital in Bergamo and every Monday at the labs in Monza.” It’s not clear what class year that student was in when he wrote that, or in which semesters this Monday/Tuesday-Friday split might apply. It does make sense that there are classes at the Monza campus, because some of the school’s professors, including Course Director Maria Grazia Strepparava, are based out of the buildings there. (Interestingly, Strepparava’s advanced degree is a PhD in psychology, according to her CV on the university website.) The Monza campus is not served by a nearby train station. The university does run three shuttle buses each in the morning and evening from the Monza city center railway stop to the medical campus.
There is also no shuttle bus from the Monza to the Bergamo campus. So, if you are going to be commuting between the two, you have three options:
- Get a car
- Take the train, which always requires at least one change. For the quickest journey (one hour and six minutes), you go all the way south to Milan to change at Lambrate station. Lambrate is, coincidentally, my old stomping ground. I lived there for two years. It’s a big student area, near Milan Polytechnic University, so if you feel like going out after a day at school, you’ve got all the pubs and restaurants you could possibly wish for right by the station.
- Take FlixBus (10 euros, 45 minutes) from Monza to Bergamo Orio al Serio Airport, and then the airport bus (10 minutes, 2.40 euros) to Bergamo city center. There are seven FlixBuses which run on each weekday.
All of this raises the question: where should you live? The intuitive answer would be Bergamo or Monza, or perhaps Lambrate. But in fact, the university offers dormitory places in three other locations:
- In Bicocca itself (via Vizzola 5, Milano)
- In the neighboring industrial suburb of Sesto San Giovanni (via Mantova 75)
- In the next town north, called Cinisello Balsamo (via Martinelli 44)
Here’s the dormitory in Sesto San Giovanni:
So, if your hope is to get a cheap dormitory room, you may (or may not) end up having to spend a lot of time travelling.
What do the school’s campuses look like? Google Street View gives us something of an idea. They’re mostly modern buildings. Here’s a view of Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital, from the south:
And this is buildling U8 of the Monza campus, where an anatomical hall and academic administration are housed:
If you want to see more pictures of the interior of what appears to be the Monza campus, you can check out this Italian-language video produced by the university.
So, what are the cities of Milan, Monza, and Bergamo like? Well, much has been written already about Milan on this website (mostly by me), so we can skip it here.
Monza, meanwhile, is a place I know well, because I’ve had clients there. It’s actually most famous for being a Formula One race location. Monza has a population of about 120,000, with a combination of historical and modern buildings in various levels of maintenance. Here’s a typical street in the center of Monza. You’ve got all the basic building blocks of a northern Italian city, including palm trees (here partially brown, because of the climate), pretty 19th-century facades, and graffiti tags.
Monza is a family-oriented city. There are not many places to go out for students. When people from Monza want to party, they often go to Milan.
Bergamo is quite a different creature. I, personally, consider it one of Italy’s most beautiful cities, because I have a taste for the Alps. The mountains rise over Bergamo to the north, and the city is only 30 kilometers from the Swiss border.
Bergamo has almost the exact same number of inhabitants as Monza, but is much more famous. It’s full of museums and the medieval old city, known in English as the “Upper City” (Città Alta), is a UNESCO World Heritage site:
Here’s a street in the Città Alta:
Because Bergamo is further than Monza from Milan, Bergamo has a nightlife of its own. It’s not crazy, but it’s cozy, with lots of wine and beer bars. A number of odes to Bergamo have been published online; this is one of the most accurate. Given the choice between living in Monza or Bergamo, I’d go with Bergamo in a heartbeat. But that’s just me. Maybe I’m missing something. According to the cost of living evaluation website Numbeo, rents in Bergamo are cheaper than in Monza. But it’s also not certain that you could find dormitory accommodation in Bergamo. Both cities are cheaper than Milan, but more expensive than certain southern locations like Bari or Messina.
At first glance on paper (or, to be accurate, on a computer screen), the curriculum of Bicocca appears very different from that of the legacy English med schools like Pavia Harvey or IMS Milan. In its own literature, Bicocca says its curriculum is “revolutionary … with intensive clinical mentoring right from second year onwards”. The word revolutionary here is perhaps best understood in an Italian marketing context. It is true that historically, Italian med schools offered little clinical exposure in the first two years. However, the standard of medical education in the industrialized English-speaking world now includes clinical work starting in year one. For example, Imperial College in London has extensive clinical training, and even clinical skills exams, in the first semester of its six-year MBBS programme. Across the pond, the same is also true of, for example, Stanford University. (In the case of US schools, of course, you are expected to have already completed a scientific pre-medical curriculum before entering med school.) Furthermore, other English med schools in Italy, such as Turin, also offer clinical education in years one and two. So if Bicocca is revolutionary, then so is Turin, and possibly Padua and the other Italian schools attempting non-traditional Italian curricula.
Bicocca, in its published curriculum, includes what it calls “clerkships” in its first year. These do not seem to mean what clerkship usually means in English — that is, viewing and doing clinical medicine in hospital settings. Rather, Bicocca’s 1st year “Clerkship 1” is composed of biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, and computer science. “Clerkship 2” is composed of… more biochemistry, medical physics, histology, and anatomy. All of these are traditional theoretical, pre-clerkship disciplines, in the usual English terminology. Maybe somehow the school ties them into some kind of hospital experience; I’d be curious about how that would be done. True detailed clinical work in Bicocca does not appear to begin until year two, and still then almost half of credits are still earned in theoretical disciplines, like pathology, immunology, and pharmacology. So, on the whole, yes, there is more clinical exposure in years one and two at Bicocca than at the legacy schools, but not much more, and it is comparable to Turin.
One genuinely unique aspect of the Bicocca curriculum, at least among Italian schools, is its “humanities” module in year one, which covers the very important-and-undertaught topics of medical ethics and law, as well as health economics, and psychology. I haven’t seen a module quite like that in any other Italian med school’s offerings.
Academic testing at Bicocca fits into the model of the legacy schools, with some subjects, like biochem, requiring oral and written exams, and others, like physics, requiring only written exams. As attentive members of the medschool.it community know, the Italian oral exam system is controversial, particularly among students from English-speaking countries, and administrators at, at least, one Italian English med school (Pavia) have told me that they were phasing out oral exams. All testing in Bicocca is scored on the traditional 30 point Italian scale. In this sense, Bicocca is conservative, unlike, for example, many US medical schools which have eliminated grading altogether, except for pass/fail, partially in an effort to reduce competitive pressures between students. However on this point, Bicocca does not, I believe, have a choice, as I suspect (although am not sure) that Italian law requires that public universities grade on a 30 point system.
Speaking of oral exams, here, just for giggles, is the spooky building where the notoriously difficult oral exams took place for the IMS Milan anatomy courses. Is that a woman on the balcony? Or a ghost of a cadaver? (Just kidding. (I hope it’s obvious I was joking.))
Bicocca prides itself in developing its curriculum “in partnership with the University of Surrey” in England, and the two universities had a much-publicized signing ceremony in 2017. The President of the University of Surrey, Max Lu, was quoted as saying that he is “sure that the collaboration will contribute to building an international landmark medical course and produce excellent doctors”. (That’s a translation from an Italian article.) So it seems like it would be a great advantage to have an Italian English medical school guided by a British university. You should know, however, that the University of Surrey doesn’t actually have its own medical school. It has a Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, but it doesn’t train doctors in an MBBS or MD-type program. Surrey has, on the other hand, announced plans to open a medical school.
Meanwhile, Surrey and Bicocca have other kinds of cooperation, such as new dual-doctorate degrees in mathematics, theoretical physics, and biomedical sciences, and the two schools put on conferences together, for example this one on string theory. And, the newspaper article I referenced earlier says that Bicocca students will have the option to do study abroad in Surrey. (I’m assuming in the biomedical sciences faculty, because Surrey doesn’t have a med school. Or perhaps in the future planned med school?) What remains unclear is what specific, practical work Surrey is doing to help Bicocca develop its medical curriculum. If anyone out there knows the answer to this question, I’d love to hear from you. Even if Surrey just helping the Bicocca professors to teach in better English than at other med schools in Italy — which has been raised publicly as an issue at some other schools — that would be a useful contribution. It does not appear that Surrey is sending native English-speaking professors to teach full courses at Bicocca, as you can tell by the names on its faculty list.
The University of Surrey is, by the way, located close to Gatwick Airport, which has cheap direct flights to Bergamo Airport. A strange coincidence. (Or is it?)
One more thing to mention about Bicocca’s curriculum is that the number of students is relatively small among Italian English med schools, with 35 students entering in 2019 — 22 EU-affiliated, and 13 non-EU-affiliated. Rome Tor Vergata also has 35, while Naples Federico II is the only smaller school, with 25. Pavia is the largest school, with 105. We could go into a long discourse here about the advantages and disadvantages of being in a small school, but we’ve only got a limited amount of space. Suffice it to say, in a small school, you’ll probably get more attention from professors, and also get to know all your classmates better. Six years can also be quite a length of time to spend with 35 people.
When we’re analyzing a med school’s reputation, there are two different approaches. There is what people say specifically about the school, and then there is how the school is ranked by international and domestic organizations. We’ll look at both.
As I mentioned earlier, there are almost no student reviews — or even commentary — online about Bicocca’s English med program. This actually isn’t unusual for Italian med schools. Outside of medschool.it, it’s hard to find student reviews about any of the English med schools in Italy, at least not in English, Italian, German, or French (the languages I’m proficient in). There is the occasional post on a university forum, for example this one about Humanitas and IMS Milan. I have wondered for years why English med students in Italy don’t write more publicly about their experiences, because in the English-speaking world, it is commonplace for med students to review their schools online. (Try Googling “yale medical school review” for an example.) I’ve got my theories why all this is so, but we don’t need to go over them here.
In order to get a sense of what Bicocca students think about their medical education, we have to sniff out other sources of information. One admirable thing that Bicocca does — and I wish more universities would do this around the world — is publish the results of its own internal student evaluations of the program. On the web page I just linked — which, by the way, takes a really long time to load for me (I’m saying that in case it is for you, too) — you can theoretically browse around and see student evaluation results of different professors. However, a lot of the actual results are missing. What you isn’t missing is the evaluation of the total program. It is a three point scale — three is the best — and the med school has average scores of 2.35, 2.32, and 2.24, for organization, teaching, and overall satisfaction respectively. While this may seem high, it’s actually hard to know what students are actually thinking, because almost all the scores for every program at the university are in the same range, between 2.0 and 2.5. Either one of two things, or both, is true: all the programs at Bicocca are good, or the scale used to measure student evaluations automatically clusters between 2.0 and 2.5, regardless of how good or bad they are. So, it’s not really clear what we can divine from the information published by the school itself.
Beyond Bicocca’s own material, there is very little information about the med school online. One review, from seven years ago, by a student in Bicocca’s Italian language program, has only positive things to say about it. “I personally recommend it to everyone!”, she writes. (I’m guessing she’s a “she” because the handle is “Nina”.) Unfortunately for us, most of her description of the program refers to clinical work in a different teaching hospital (San Gerardo, in Monza). She does say that the university is new and clean with a good library, and everything in excellent condition. She describes the course as “well organized” and the professors as “highly prepared … and always available”.
How does Bicocca’s med school do in rankings? It depends on whom you ask. US News & World Report, the most prominent American university ranking system, places Bicocca as 7th best in Italy and 174th best worldwide.Times Higher Education, one of Britain’s premiere rankings, also puts Bicocca as 7th best in Italy and between 251 and 300th best worldwide. The other major British rankings, QS, have Bicocca in 13th place in Italy and again between 251 and 300th best worldwide.
There’s only really one domestic Italian ranking system, Censis, and, in contrast to the international rankings, it puts Bicocca as the number one best med school in Italy. The Censis rankings vary quite a bit from year to year, but going back at least to 2014, Bicocca has always been in Censis’ top four.
So who’s right? The international, or the domestic, rankings? Obviously there’s no definite answer to these questions, because each ranking has a different methodology. US News looks at research and reputation. Times Higher Education considers teaching, research, citations, and international outlook. QS takes into account reputation, faculty/student ratio, and citations. Finally, Censis evaluates the schools’ “services, structures, scholarships and fees, internet site, and internationalization”. Censis can include some rather trivial statistics, such as “number of seats in the library per student” and “what percentage of courses contain dual degrees”, which I’m guessing probably don’t matter much to you. (Let me know if I’m wrong.)
So, very generally, the international rankings are based on a med school’s research influence, while the domestic rankings are based on more logistical metrics. If you care a lot about what people around the world think about your med school, you might (or might not) be better served by IMS Milan, Bologna, or Rome La Sapienza, among other famous universities. If you care about what Italians think — because they’re more influenced by Censis — then Bicocca is certainly not a bad choice. And that’s about all that can be objectively said here about Bicocca’s reputation.
After all this research, what keeps me curious is the question of why Bicocca happened to end up with the second-highest threshold EU-affiliated applicant IMAT score this year. It certainly seems like a good school. On the other hand, it beat out established legacy schools like Pavia and La Sapienza, as well as ancient, internationally famous ones like Bologna and Padua. Perhaps there are a number of factors in Bicocca’s favor:
- Its small size (which keeps its IMAT threshold higher)
- Its marketing (its website is relatively well-designed compared to some other public schools, and repeatedly mentions its relationship with the University of Surrey)
- Its location in the North (northern schools are generally more sought after than southern ones — fairly or unfairly)
- Its connection both to Milan and to Bergamo, both extraordinary cities
- Its Censis ranking (Perhaps. I’m really not sure what proportion of IMAT applicants take Censis rankings into account.)
If you put Bicocca as your first choice IMAT school, I’d love to hear from you. If you’re a student at Bicocca, I’d really love to hear from you, so that we can get some more firsthand accounts of what the school is like. And if you can add to, clarify, or correct, anything I’ve written in this profile, please also drop me a line.
To the rest of you: good luck in choosing your top med school!