For the last three years, the Reggio based online paper, Strill.it, has organised “Tabularasa” a month long series of encounters and debates on a wide variety of subjects. Local and visiting speakers sit on a stage overlooking the Straits of Messina with a public seeking the evening cool and perhaps some enlightenment.
On my evening, we considered the merits and faults of the Italian and American university systems. The panel was made up of Salvatore Berlingò, a Roman lawyer and rector of Reggio’s University for Foreigners, Francesco Russo, an engineer from the University of Reggio Calabria, Susana Cavallo, from Loyola University’s Rome Campus, Massimiliano Ferrara, political scientist and functionary from the Calabrian regional government and Phil Pullella, Reuters’ Vatican correspondent. The discussion was chaired by the two editors of strill.it, Raffaele Mortelliti and Giusva Branca. Some of us had experience in both systems, some only in one.
The two most important questions at the basis of any discussion on this topic have to be – what are universities for? And how should they be financed?
Italy is unclear on both questions. There is a presumption that universities are primarily research institutions and that faculty should above all be judged on their production. And yet successive governments have consistently reduced funding for research. There is also a lack of consensus on how faculty should be rated and two of the panel had a heated discussion on that point – today there are new criteria, more or less international, which are being used to grade academics but Italy is still a long way from adopting the UK quality assessment methods or the US outcomes assessment. Particularly in the humanities, there are many Italians who feel that supposedly “Anglo-Saxon” criteria of peer review and citations in scientific journals miss the point. Maybe, but they do not come up with more convincing metres. This was the division between the Roman lawyer and the engineer on our panel.
On the cost side, there is even less consensus. Italian students are beginning to pay real money especially when they also have to pay for bed and board away from home, though the costs are still tiny compared to the US or even the US, they are much higher than in Scandinavia, say.
Student loan debt in the US is apparently now greater than mortgage debt for houses. UK student enrollment is down because of rising costs. The prospect of starting one’s working life seriously in debt is already discouraging British students from going to university.
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