Victims of a bureaucracy bash

May 24, 1996

Richard Davies says much that is true in his swingeing critique of Italian universities (THES, April 26). Indeed, they are badly in need of reform. But he omits to say much else that is also true, namely about the high quality of scholarship and research that comes from these institutions. His immoderate attack on Italian academics adds nothing constructive to the hyperbolic accounts given by Italians themselves. National self-criticism is almost a pastime in Italy. His criticisms would be more effective were he able to say something about the strengths of Italian universities as well as what he clearly feels are their overwhelming deficiencies.

Davies's suggestion that British universities would do well to abandon exchange schemes with their Italian equivalents is ill-informed about how these are viewed in British universities by academics and students and lacking in any constructive perspective. British students on exchange visits to Italy benefit greatly from these arrangements.

While it is true that students complain about the cumbersome bureaucracy in enrolling and so on, there are few complaints about the standard of teaching. Indeed, agreements are subject- and institution-specific, and most British students are visited by home academics to ensure conditions are satisfactory. Judicious selection of Italian universities with which to make agreements can produce excellent results with a high degree of student satisfaction.

The agreements on accommodation for incoming students that already form part of Erasmus programmes are of benefit to students from both sides. These generally work well. The new Socrates arrangements will be contractually based. They are intended to tighten up on the academic side of the exchanges and produce evenness of treatment across partner institutions.

They will insist on the mutual validation of credits that students will have to gain as a condition for continuing degree courses on returning to their home university. This will entail close collaboration on programmes of study. Hosting institutions will have to set and assess the work of foreign students and produce transcripts of student achievement to be sent to the home university. Such requirements will be a condition for receiving Socrates funding. Those Italian institutions (and British for that matter) unable to meet the criteria will be excluded. These are important developments that will have their effect not only on Italian universities, but also on their British counterparts, who will have to scrutinise their own far from perfect practices. It should be pointed out that a number of these detailed agreements, which work very well, already exist between British and Italian universities.

Much still needs to be done to improve such schemes, although Italian universities have further to go than the British. We are, however, trying to improve a system of exchanges already highly beneficial to both sides. Were we to follow the advice of Richard Davies we would rightly be swamped by protest from our students for denying them a provision from which they clearly benefit and prize highly.

Gino Bedani Chair, Society for Italian Studies, professor of Italian University of Wales, Swansea

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