Italian universities unfairly stereotyped

March 3, 1995

Paul Bompard's description of the Italian university system (THES, February 17) needs to be supplemented. The private sector's contribution is not only very small, but offers no guarantee that its quality is superior to the public system since many of its methods, mentalities and even staff are the same.

Nor are the low graduation rates of the public system - by now a well-established international stereotype of Italian wastefulness and inefficiency - all that they appear to be. In reality the figures are calculated on the basis of those who pay the first, very low instalment of the two-part registration fee in the first year. Once the true figure of those effectively beginning a student career emerges, then completion rates become much more respectable, approaching European averages.

But distinctions within Italy are important too. As Italian universities gain more autonomy, as state funding dwindles, and as more staff and students get opportunities (eg Erasmus) to compare their institutions with the best international practice, so difference in the effectiveness of single institutions become more obvious. Here in Bologna graduation rates are rising consistently, now approaching more than two-thirds in the most successful courses in this faculty of almost 10,000 students in political science. In many other ways - new buildings, new campuses, expanded student services - the results of massive and intelligent investment in the 1980s, including the 900th anniversary celebrations, are evident. There are still daunting problems, but the biggest one is demand: the student body as a whole grew by 5,000 students last year alone.

However not even this university is simply a factory for producing cheap graduates: the fact that one of our professors, Ramono Prodi, may be next prime minister is proof enough of that.The Johns Hopkins Bologna Center is mentioned as a private sector alternative to the Italian public undergraduate system. The Hopkins Center is in fact a postgraduate institution. It offers a specialised two-year MA programme to 160 highly selected students from countries, including Italy.

D. W. ELLWOOD

Associate professor in international history

Johns Hopkins University

School of Advanced International Studies, Bologna Center

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