Private universities profit from ailing state system, says dean

April 14, 2000

Fulco Lanchester, dean of the political science faculty of Europe's largest and most crowded university, Rome's La Sapienza, does not mince words.

"La Sapienza, with its 160,000 students, is like an enormous white whale, helplessly washed up on the beach," he said. "Everyone says they want to tow the whale back out to sea. In reality, many people have an interest in keeping it beached, because in this way they will be able to cut off its fat and use it to feed other universities in Rome - private universities like Lumsa, Luiss, San Pio V, the University of Malta, and two other state universities and the various Catholic institutions."

Professor Lanchester believes that the private universities are profiting from the difficulties of the state system. He also pointed out that while enrolments are falling in the state universities, the private ones are flourishing.

"Most of the academics who work in the private universities also have jobs in the state universities. This means that the state provides them with lifelong job security, pensions and health care, and then they make extra money working in the private sector. Consequently, this means that the private universities use, at low cost to themselves, personnel that we are paying for ... full-time work."

Under current legislation, academics in the state system are allowed to take short contracts to teach in the private sector as long as they have permission from their faculty. Permission is rarely denied.

But according to Professor Lanchester, there is a tendency for the private institutions to "thrive as a saprophyte on the ills of the state system".

He warns that there is "the danger of state academics neglecting their work in the state universities to work in the private sector".

"This is even greater in this period of transition and reform in the state system, in which a mass of problems need to be solved urgently and all at the same time. Academics may be tempted to work in a looser, less regulated environment, free from the bureaucratic and administrative trammels that often afflict the state system, and which we must strive to combat.

"I agree that there must be competition between universities, be they state or private, but this competition cannot take place with one competitor with his legs tied together and the other wearing running spikes.

"What we should be working on is a system under which a private university pays something to the state university from which an academic is borrowed."

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