History man from Bologna

April 17, 1998

A chance meeting in an archive led David Ellwood to a career in a country with a 'tremendous respect for learning'. Paul Bompard reports.

David Ellwood, 51, is associate professor of contemporary international history at the University of Bologna, one of the most modern and highly regarded universities in Italy's state higher education system. He made his name in Italy with work on the second world war and the Allied occupation, in particular with L'Alleato Nemico, published in 1977, which dealt with the politics and economics of Allied policy in Italy between 1943 and 1946.

He is working on the influence of the United States on Europe in the years after the war.

Ellwood arrived in Italy in the early 1970s during a Reading University PhD on Italy during the second world war. In Turin, while researching in the archives of the Istituto Storico della Resistenza, he met Enzo Collotti, one of Italy's most eminent contemporary historians, who was teaching at Bologna University. "In 1977, Professor Collotti told me there was an opening coming up as an incaricato, a kind of junior associate professor, at Bologna. I took the concorso or competitive exam, and got the job. Then in 1988 I took the 'concorso' for associate professor and got the job of teaching contemporary British history."

Ellwood says he never had any problems because he was not an Italian. "I was simply an EC citizen with all the rights and qualifications of any of the Italian candidates." He explained that "it was Collotti who presented me to the commission".

Ellwood is positive about his experience in Italy. "It is a patchy system, make no mistake, but in a place like Bologna the moral pressure to work well is enormous. In many ways, the Italian university system is primitive. But things are changing now, various reforms are making themselves felt: the introduction of a credits system for students, for instance, on the American model; or the new system for direct recruitment of academics by the individual universities. Also, the prospect of contracts for temporary lecturers means that people from outside the university, people who are actually working in their respective professions or businesses, can come and teach.

"Certainly, an academic who does not want to work can get away with doing very little. But the absenteeism of the past is becoming less and less tolerated and much rarer. This is certainly the case here in Bologna and in most of the northern universities. Of course what happens elsewhere may be different.

"In Italy there is a tremendous respect for learning as an essential part of human endeavour. And an old-fashioned balance between the duties of an academic and the time available for research and study."

He has also had good experiences with his research. "There is a marvellous network of independent institutes that run libraries and archives. In my field, particularly, there are the regional institutes that conserve documents about the war, the Resistance and Fascism. The point is that in Italy, much more than in the UK, universities work in harmony with the rest of society with the city in which the university is located. The local authorities support university services and promote joint cultural institutions and events. Beyond that, there are independent institutes of all kinds."

Ellwood says he would consider going back to the UK "only under very exceptional circumstances. In the UK, academics tend to be terribly overworked and badly underpaid. There is a chronic lack of funding. They are under tremendous pressure from all kinds of state controls.

"This is the general trend of managerialism and I am dismayed to see it being exported to other countries such as Australia. At the same time a colleague working in the UK told me he had been asked to take a temporary pay cut to help keep his university alive."

His teaching experience has also been positive. "The students here are much more mature and self-reliant than those in the UK, who are a very mollycoddled lot and seem to take this for granted. If you give Italian students a lead and encouragement, they respond marvellously."

There is, however, a downside: "The worst thing here is the inhumanity of the system as a whole. This is in the continental tradition of the state as a machine of rules and regulations without a human face, which the citizen must follow and obey. But this may be what makes European students so self-reliant."

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