Don's Diary

August 16, 1996

SUNDAY. The Italian academic year may not be intense but it is long, stretching from mid-September to the end of July. In Bologna it is usually stifling and humid by now, but clear sunshine and warm winds are a unique change. Discover from the local paper that the rector has announced the equivalent of a Pounds 90 million surplus for 1995, including Pounds 6 million of "unassigned funds". As he is also proposing a new round of tuition fee increases (currently Pounds 400 a year), there is much indignant press comment.

MONDAY. Last faculty council of the year. Casual and yet pedantic, essential yet often incomprehensible, these assemblies are the polar opposite of the ever-more frantic micro-management of resources prevailing in Britain. Perhaps because there is no word in Italian for "accountability" little effort is made to explain what goes on and why; the rector's surplus attracts no comment. Yet this is a faculty which has supplied the jovial current prime minister and his doughty defence minister. I sit surrounded by ex-senators, ex-deputies, and prominent political columnists who, if nothing else, confirm how close the most significant university institutions are to the life of the society.

TUESDAY. Visit colleague in the newly renovated former monastery and prison which houses three history departments in the old city centre. The renovation is astonishingly beautiful, austere and chic. The stylish halls, galleries and staircases are accompanied by a residential wing and two large courtyards. In the inner of them, rows of seats are set out for one of the many musical and film events which fill Bologna's palaces and cloisters at this time of year. I recall my last visit here years ago, helping to run a history exam for a convicted terrorist, a grim and absurd experience.

WEDNESDAY. Train to Forli, the seat of the faculty's new branch campus. Close to Mussolini's birthplace, the town reflects his architectural taste and the departments are carved out of a wing of his hospital. In a long series of oral exams based on my course on the second world war, I am reminded how hard it is to explain what the war was about to today's students. Alienated by the official rhetoric of left and right, they are surrounded by the intense and confusing debates on fascism, communism and national identity that dominate public life as the country gropes towards a post-cold war political stability. Forli's air of comfortable and prosperous provincialism conceals how peculiarly Italian all this is, a good reason to encourage students to use the Erasmus student exchange scheme.

THURSDAY. Students must write a substantial thesis to graduate. The formal discussion of these products completes their career. Committees of supervisors and discussants examine each one in public sessions with families and friends present, dressed in their best. At today's session I am struck once again by the dedication and erudition students display. A thesis on the poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney includes interview material with the great man; another, on David Cronenberg's films, presents us with a girl already established in the Los Angeles film studies world. The underlying respect for learning which all concerned take for granted makes the thesis session one of the more congenial elements of the Italian way. The ritual concludes with a final award of marks, handshakes and an explosion of flash-bulbs, bouquets, applause and joy. Years of effort and sacrifice finally concluded and, hopefully, justified.

FRIDAY. More oral exams, now in Bologna. One part-time student explains the subterfuges she has used to get away from her small firm, where her desire to study - a legal right - is discouraged by fair means and foul. The mass of small companies underpinning the rich Bolognese economy conceals levels of sweat-shop exploitation which graduates (especially women) often complain of. Part-timers meanwhile are targeted in the rector's tuition increase, intended not to raise money but to discourage the frivolous in a system without formal means of selection. However, the local paper reports mounting opposition to the plan. Although student militancy is low compared to the past, this is the one issue which could yet give us an autumn of strikes and demonstrations.

SATURDAY. Last thesis session. The explosive Stefano finally graduates under my supervision. With a retinue of over 50 brought up from the deep South, he is the kind of charismatic individual who last year forced the faculty to ban the video-recording of thesis sessions, on the grounds of excessive protagonism and spettacolarizzazione. A huge success as an Erasmus student in Sussex, he confirms the tendency for academically inclined graduates to lean towards Britain when they go on, while the professionally ambitious choose America.

In the local paper the prime minister is photographed with his newly graduated son. Wonder which of the two cultures he will choose and reflect again that the British have no idea of the vast world advantage they possess in a newly developed postgraduate system, outdone only by America's. Drift home for lunch after a week including five meetings, 34 thesis discussions and 75 oral exams: quite enough for a hot summer week.

David Ellwood

Associate professor of international history, University of Bologna.

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