Your report on the Pisa Scuola Normale Superiore (THES, January 3) gives the mistaken impression that it is a unique institution. This is not so. The Italian University and Scientific Research Ministry (MURST) recognises 12 university colleges as being of "special scientific merit"; four of these are situated in the partially collegiate University of Pavia.
Thus, for example, Collegio Ghislieri, Pavia has 200 undergraduates (100 male, 100 female) who are registered for Pavia University degrees. They are required to maintain high average grades to complete exams to a tight schedule (not the norm in a system where exams can be taken when the candidate feels ready, often years after the course was given) and to take internal language proficiency exams on top of their normal course-load.
The college, founded in 1567 by Pope Pius V, but secular since the 18th century, offers free places (board and lodging) on the basis of merit and/or family circumstances, an extensive private library, computing and sports facilities, not to mention a web of exchange relationships with similar institutions in other countries, such as the Maximilianeum in Munich and St John's College, Cambridge. An independent foundation, it is housed in a fine 16th-century palazzo.
Having spent nearly ten years in the Italian system, both studying as a postgraduate and teaching, I can confirm that the state of higher education in Italy is not as ruinous as some of your reports suggest.
Department of archaeology, Nottingham University