Italy revs up to promote prestige

September 2, 2005

Italian universities' spending on promotional initiatives to attract students has soared from €2 million (£1.4 million) to €20 million in less than five years.

Competition for students has led many universities to set up advertising departments that use radio, TV, newspapers and hoardings to try to impress school-leavers with the quality of degree courses and services offered, as well as their academic tradition and prestige.

"Publicity is not demonic," said Alessandro Finazzi Agr, rector of Rome's Tor Vergata University. "It is a sign of the times. But the best advertising remains word-of-mouth among students."

Some universities have been conferring honorary degrees on public figures considered popular with young people, which has been criticised as debasing the traditional prestige of the degree.

In June, Urbino University gave an honorary degree in communications sciences to Valentino Rossi, the 26-year-old World Grand Prix motorcycle champion. Honorary graduates elsewhere include rock'n'roll idol Vasco Rossi and popular journalist and political commentator Giorgio Bocca.

The motorcyclist's degree prompted a chorus of protest from academics and students. Valentino Rossi gave the key testimonial in an advertising campaign by a private tutoring agency viewed with great suspicion in academic circles. The agency charges substantial fees, often employs moonlighting academics and promises to get students through exams in state universities in record time with the minimum of effort.

There are two reasons for the mounting wave of advertising. First, state funding has become more closely linked to student numbers. Second, employers and students have become increasingly sensitive to the prestige of individual institutions.

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