Fix-it firm finds niche market in Italy

September 8, 1995

Private companies are springing up in Italy to guide students through the country's complex, bureaucratic and user-unfriendly university system.

For a fee, the firms take students in hand, provide teachers, tutors and bureaucratic fixers, and the only point of contact with the actual university is when they are taken to sit the 24 to 36 examinations required for a degree.

They are a boon to students trying to study at crowded universities which have a statutory obligation to accept all students who present themselves and can pay the tuition fee.

Firms with names such as the European Centre for University Preparation, the European Multidisciplinary Institute, and, more directly, Degree Goal, have enjoyed an unprecedented boom with demand trebling over the past three years. With the new academic year about to open, they are advertising heavily in national daily newspapers and on radio stations.

Brunella Spapperi, academic coordinator of the European Centre for University Preparation, which has almost 70 branches throughout Italy, said: "Our clients need only ever come into contact with the university when they go in to take their examinations."

"We take care of enrolment and paying taxes (fees). We establish a study programme for the degree our client wants; we assign a teacher for each examination, and a tutor to look after the student until he or she gets a degree."

The centre says that the teacher appointed for each examination is a specialist in the exam. "We have people who are in touch with the university, who know what kind of questions individual examiners are likely to ask, who may have examples of questions asked at previous examinations. "They help the student understand the books for each examination, telling them which bits can be skimmed or ignored."

The tutor oversees and assists, tailoring the programme of examinations to each student's needs and providing help, advice and motivation as needed. Both teacher and tutors maintain relations with the university on the student's behalf.

The company insists there is no conflict of interest because teachers working for it are never full-time lecturers at the university involved, although they may be its graduates or researchers with grants.

The firms are the consequence of a university system that is so impenetrable and time-consuming that many students prefer to let a private firm do much of the work. In common with other walks of Italian life, from passing a driving test to selling a used car, an agenzia is used to hack through the bureaucratic jungle. While a student may have to stand in line for hours just to sign up for a course, the agenzia sends a representative with a briefcase full of request forms to a university employee with whom the firm has an on going relationship.

Instead of spending valuable time waiting for lectures that are cancelled or postponed at the last minute, or trying to talk to a lecturer, which few Italian students ever manage to do, the agenzia's client is coached on just what they need to know for each examination, which in any case is based on set text books (often written by the professor who set the examination).

The CEPU, the largest agency of its kind, has 8,000 students on its books. With another four or five smaller operations in existence, an estimated 20,000-30,000 students are following their university courses in this way.

Most of these students also work, but many are conventional school-leavers.

The annual cost ranges from 8,000,000 to 15,000,000 lire (Pounds 3,200-Pounds 6,000) plus normal university fees of approximately Pounds 500.

Ms Spapperi said: "Our system is based on a one-to-one relationship with the student, and is a way of using the university in a way made to measure for each student - a far cry from overcrowded lecture theatres in which students have to sit on the floor and listen to a lecturer three rooms away through a little loudspeaker nailed to the wall.

"The extraordinary growth in demand over the past few years means we are satisfying a social need, on the one hand that of people who are aged 30 to 35, in a career and want to get a degree or finish a course they interrupted when they were younger, and on the other that of young people who want to go to university but would be put off by the system as it is."

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