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No holiday in Rome

By Domenico Pacitti

Lectures in car parks, courtyards and sleazy cinemas on closing days, student receptions in corridors and cloakrooms with oral exams lasting late into the night - just some of the hallmarks of Italy's 63 state universities. Poor organisation, excessive bureaucracy and lack of teacher motivation add to overcrowding and inadequate facilities.

Nearly one-tenth of the country's 1.7 million undergraduates (more than half of whom are women) study at Rome's mammoth La Sapienza university, the largest in Europe. At the 20,000-student law faculty you have to book your seat in the lecture hall at least an hour in advance to avoid sitting cramped on the stairs or outside under a window in the scorching sun or pouring rain desperately trying to decipher the professor's voice as it booms through loudspeakers to three or four hundred students crammed into a hall designed for 100.

The basic pattern is replicated at Bologna (100,000 students), Naples (90,000), Turin (64,000), Milan (60,000) and Palermo, Catania, Bari, Florence and Padua (all over 50,000). Even the smaller provincial universities bear the same stamp. There, too, the ritual gathering round the podium at the end of lectures is a means of emerging from anonymity to capture the professor's attention with anything from an intelligent question to a seductive glance a sure investment for exam day.

Enrico Rusi, 23, from Isernia, 90 miles south-east of Rome, is part of a tiny but growing élite that has rejected the state model in favour of one of the country's 14 private universities. The 5,000-student Luiss (Libera Università Internazionale Studi Sociali "Guido Carli"), in Rome's residential Nomentana district, is just 20 minutes' walk from La Sapienza, but is like stepping into another world.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Rusi does not come from a high-income family. His father works for the electricity board, his mother runs a laundry business and their total annual income is around €25,000 (£15,680), about one-third of the average Luiss family income. Now in his fourth and final year of economics and business management, Rusi hopes to graduate next summer.

"We have excellent teachers and small classes, which in Italy means no more than 80 to 90. We also have an individual tutor. It is ideal for anyone who wants to obtain a good degree fast and efficiently. On the other hand, the high fees my parents pay - about €5,000 (£3,140) per year - put me under enormous pressure, so that I feel very guilty about failing an exam or not studying enough."

An estimated 90% of Italian parents pay all fees and expenses. As in Rusi's case, even parents who are not particularly well-off are generally prepared to make the necessary sacrifices for a university education.

"I've managed to pick up some grants along the way and do my best to earn extra money, but it's still not enough to cover fees. A typical Luiss student living in Rome will spend around €400 (£250) a month with just one night out a week. The same again goes on renting a flat with two or three students."

Rusi regrets not having opted for a British university, where he feels undergraduate life is much more enjoyable: "In Italy we have no campuses, no university associations and no university nightlife." But he might go abroad for a while after his degree. "I am pretty confident about finding a job," he says.

Unemployment for under-25s is 28% against the European average of 16.4%. But quality graduates from Luiss and other private universities generally have little trouble finding suitable work since many of their professors hold senior positions in commercial enterprises.

Although government funding to private universities rose from €62m (£39m) to €108m (£68m) between 1995 and 2001 to help provide equal opportunities for low-income students, it has had limited effect. Francesca Fracci, 24, left school in Cagliari, Sardinia, with a passion for languages. She would dearly have liked to go to the Cattolica private university in Milan, but felt that her parents could not afford it. On the advice of friends, she opted for modern languages at Pisa (46,000 students), which has the reputation of being one of Italy's top state universities.

"I won a scholarship based on my school leaving certificate grades and family income, which paid for my lodgings and half of first-year fees. Good exam results renewed the scholarship for another three years. Fees at Pisa, as in most state universities, are around €650 (£408) a year. Every month you spend €200 (£125) to share a flat with another three or four students."

Living a few hundred yards away saves Fracci time and travel expenses, but she can afford to return to Cagliari only for summer holidays, Christmas and Easter. Unlike Rusi, she can't spare the time for a job.

"I am fairly satisfied with the teaching at Pisa. Overcrowded lecture halls were limited to first-year English language classes. French literature was better organised, perhaps because it is a far smaller department. English medieval literature was confusedly mixed with modern throughout the four years. Nor was there nearly enough English conversation. There has been little opportunity for the creative exchange of ideas on language or literature. Liberal seminars in English are what's really needed."

Fracci hopes to graduate this year. Few of her modern languages colleagues complete their degrees in less than five or six years and about 20% take eight years or more. In engineering, medicine and law, for example, students rarely graduate before the age of 27 or 28.

"Although we now have three-year 'short' degrees [introduced two years ago to help combat the long-running two-thirds drop-out rate at state universities], British students are lucky in having always had them. But they get off far too lightly in not having to write a graduation thesis. In Italy it is the only chance you ever get to select your own topic and do original work."

Fracci hopes to take a masters in Britain after graduation and return to Italy to do research and pursue an academic career, an apparently obvious choice for top graduates but one that requires careful reflection.

Just last month the suicide of a chemistry researcher at Salerno unleashed strong protests by Italy's 4,660 doctoral students who claim that insufficient economic incentives and precarious contracts are encouraging a new brain drain to finer pastures in Britain, France and the US.

A recent survey by Italy's socio-economic research institute, Censis, has confirmed this. Three thousand emigrants, more than 71.2% of whom held degrees cum laude, said that Italy offered far less money and far fewer career prospects than the countries they had moved to. Nepotism, corruption and a feudal, politicised system, they said, left little scope for honest merit.

A typical case has just appeared in the Italian national daily Il Corriere della Sera. Despite a degree cum laude in nuclear engineering, a doctorate and international work experience, "Matteo" could obtain no more than precarious one-year renewable postdoctoral contracts earning him far less than an unskilled labourer. Job applications to 84 Italian companies received only two replies - both negative. Twelve to Britain and Germany got 12 replies. He now works in Germany and would love to return to Italy but sees little hope.

Premier Silvio Berlusconi appears to have accepted 1997 reform giving Italian universities autonomy to organise courses - the aim being to raise quality and make them competitive with private universities.

And education minister Letizia Moratti recently announced that reforms must help universities to find a new role in society, increase graduate numbers, reduce the time required to get a degree and increase work opportunities. But Italy still allocates just 0.7% of its GNP to universities. That's about 0.2% less than Britain, France and Germany, and 40% less per student.

Note: This article first appeared in The Guardian on October 8 2002.