Academia as Roman holiday

April 26, 1996

You may as well call your local chippie a restaurant as grace Italian universities with the title of university, protests Richard Davies

Italian universities have no business participating in exchange programmes such as Erasmus and its successor, Socrates, because, in general, the institutions denoted by the Italian word universita are not universities. In the way that the average chip shop is not a restaurant, the Sunday Sport not a newspaper and the Athenaeum not a pub, these are not mere matters of definition. As an eye that cannot see is not an eye so most universita are not universities: the function is not fulfilled.

The functions of a university include essential teaching and research. The raw numbers will do nicely: when a teacher is outnumbered 100 to one by students it is not possible to encourage students to operate autonomously and creatively. This is a fairly typical ratio in Italian universities.

Whereas British lecturers normally have ten or 12 "contract-hours" per week, their Italian counterparts are required to teach for only three hours, making the effective ratio something like 40 times worse than that in Britain. Indicative of this is the near-total absence of the concept of the supervision or tutorial; a seminar is little other than an unpopular lecture.

The failure to teach can also be measured by the drop-out rate. Italian universities produce about as many graduates as British universities. But only about 30 per cent of those who begin a degree course finish it. Those who do may not be the most able, but those with the most grit (or family money).

Determination is indeed an important characteristic in a student. But when humiliations and bureaucratic obstacles are piled up as they are in Italian universities, the student who perseveres might be regarded as insensible to his or her own dignity.

Graduates of Italian universities will have processed a wide range of knowledge after their four years of course work. Yet, much of this knowledge is highly forgettable, acquired as it is for the short-term objectives of examination. Examinations discourage students from pursuing their own interests because they generally take the form of an oral interrogation about the contents of a monograph written by the teacher/examiner. This puts an intolerable premium on student conformity and reinforces the teachers' narcissistic self-regard.

The dogmatism of many teachers that results from such a system sits uneasily with a dominant ideology, which can be summarised as the thought that no truth is absolute. Besides its own incoherence, this thought ought to disqualify anyone who harbours it from describing any activity as "research", where that is the effort to discover, connect and elaborate truths.

I belive that in many faculties no research appears to be done by staff who are contractually bound to do it. What is done is modishness, tired and frequently slipshod, repetition, or juvenile babble (written by people aged over 40) This is a way of enacting the prevalent ideology; but it is not intellectual work that merits subvention by the state.

While a British academic submits work for peer review prior to publication, the typical Italian article or monograph is let through on the nod and its printing costs are defrayed from the funds of the institution. It is vanity publishing with other people's money.

Almost all Italian academics of any renown work abroad: most Nobel prize-winners teach and research primarily outside Italy. Even Umberto Eco has set up shop at the independent San Marino University in northern Italy. This is not because the pay and work conditions might be better, but because seriousness is taken seriously.

What does all this mean for schemes like Erasmus and Socrates? Let us consider the causes. First, Italian students admitted to British universities under these schemes enjoy personalised tuition, functioning libraries, and the social life and other amenities that even the least advantaged British student takes for granted. In general, when they return to their home university, they take an even dimmer view of how that is run. There is fierce competition to participate in these schemes.

In part, this is a consequence of the different statuses of English and Italian as contact languages. But even foreign-language degree courses in Italy do not contemplate residence abroad. As a result, only the very best students benefit from foreign study.

Second, British students who come to Italy, even to literature faculties, are generally not Italianists. Some may regard their time here almost as an extra-curricular activity. They are given only slight advantages relative to their host companions and they seem to be subjected to many of the same vexation and abuses as Italian students.

Third, Italian academics visiting a British university are not required to take on their counterparts' teaching load or administrative and pastoral commitments. They have all the advantages of their home environment plus access to functioning libraries, while their hosts are called on to cover duties alien to them. It is, indeed, reasonable for hosts to protect students from direct contact with people almost certainly rendered idle and petulant by a system that demands little while flattering their sense of self-importance. Fourth, British academics visiting Italy are on holiday and doing harm only to their home colleagues.

Thus, a very few Italian students and some British academics stand to gain by schemes like Erasmus, at the cost of participating British students, of non-participating British academics and at the price of continuing the lie that what Italian academics perpetuate are institutions of higher education. Without some inspection of the credentials of universita, the British should refuse to cooperate.

Richard Davies is a foreign language teacher at the Universit Degli Studi Di Bergamo.

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