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Unfair exchange

By Domenico Pacitti & James Meikle

Italian universities face a European Union investigation into the way they organise exchange schemes, following complaints from British students and academics.

Two Euro MPs are demanding action in response to allegations that visitors to Italy experience poor teaching and indifference from academics, overcrowded classrooms, poor accommodation and expensive rents, and have to deal with "haphazard" bureaucracy.

One claimed the growing concern in the European Parliament could lead to the blocking of EU grants which fund the programmes, although some critics in British universities with links in Italy blamed the nature of the country's higher education system rather than the way partners operated the exchange programmes.

A professor said that the Italian system was "rotten, in need of revolution and recasting, shamelessly exploitative, discriminatory and corrupt". Italian authorities insisted the experience of students on EU programmes was "invariably" positive.
  
Hugh McMahon, Labour MEP for Strathclyde West, who has helped persuade both the Parliament and Commission to investigate discrimination against foreign language lecturers in Italy, said he had a growing dossier of complaints about students' experiences. They revealed serious deficiencies in the way EU programmes operate at several Italian universities. "I believe this represents only the tip of the iceberg," he said.

He is inviting exchange coordinators at British universities to provide more information so he can press the European Commission for a formal investigation.

"There appears to be blatant discrimination against foreign students and lecturers and what is happening on the ground is at variance with the utterances of Italian politicians in the European Parliament," said Mr McMahon, rapporteur on the Parliament's social affairs and employment committee. He has asked the European Commissioner, Edith Cresson, to detail costs of the exchanges.

"The treatment of foreign students, especially over accommodation, is scandalous and calls into question the European bona fides of universities' administration."

"Several EP members from various political parties are horrified at the scandal, and there are now moves to block future EU financial support for such programmes in Italy. This would be a drastic and unprecedented step, but we have been left with no alternative course of action. As guardians of taxpayers' money we are honour-bound to ensure these programmes are a sound investment and not frittered away."

Member states would be obliged to investigate irregularities wherever they happened, but most complaints were made about Italy.

The long-running Erasmus student exchange programme, now subsumed within the wider EU Socrates programme, will this financial year see Italy allocated about 8.5 million. Unofficial sources in Brussels point to a probable increase in Italy's funding soon.

Another Euro MP, Roy Perry, Conservative MEP for Wight and Hampshire South, requested that Madame Cresson begin an investigation late last year. He was particularly concerned that European students were not getting sufficient help because of the dismissal of foreign language lecturers in Italian universities.

She wrote back in January saying that the Commission only knew about a few withdrawals from exchanges approved for 160,000 Erasmus students in 1996: "In each case the Commission has contacted the university rectors concerned to draw their attention to the fact that it is of the utmost importance to provide students with relevant, transparent and formal information about the courses they are going to take abroad in the framework of their contract."

"Should the Commission receive specific complaints from Erasmus students in Italian universities, it will investigate their cases and take the necessary steps to deal with the situation."

Mr Perry, budget rapporteur in the European Parliament's culture committee, intends to to pursue the matter further, saying the Commissioner's reply was "inadequate and unacceptable". Meanwhile David Petrie, whose Committee for the Defence of Foreign Lecturers has been fighting for recognition and better pay for such staff in Italian universities, has offered help and legal advice to students too.

"I have copies of written complaints from angry and disappointed Austrian, Belgian, British, Dutch, French, German, Norwegian and Spanish students to a number of Italian universities on a whole range of matters," said Mr Petrie.

"Academic incompetence on the part of Italian professors, one of the most recurrent themes, can be explained by the fact the Italian system selects its teaching staff on the basis of recommendation rather than one of honest merit."

"Foreign students encounter a host of discriminations from more expensive meal tickets and accommodation to a more rigid means of exam assessment."

Antonella Cammisa, director of Italy's National Socrates/Erasmus Agency, based at Rome's higher education ministry, said she was unaware of complaints. "On the contrary, Socrates students invariably consider their experience in Italy a positive one. We categorically reject all attempts to besmirch the respectability and organisation of our university system."

"We are unaware of alleged EP cuts to Socrates funding for Italy. Some problems and drawbacks to full success in Italy no doubt do exist but they are no different from those that exist in other EU countries."

John Reilly, director for the UK Socrates-Erasmus Council, said he received few complaints and thought programme coordinators preferred to remedy problems themselves. He said: "One has to distinguish between three-month and 12-month stays. There are bound to be more problems in the former case owing to limited time for adjustment."

The view in Britain over Italian exchanges appears mixed. One university recently pulled out of "unsatisfactory" arrangements with two well-known Italian ones, but remains confident over standards at other smaller institutions. Another said exchanges with Italian universities have satisfactory academic standards but criticised accommodation, bureaucracy and social integration.

A professor responsible for exchanges at another British university said no criticisms made about standards in Italy represented discrimination against erasmus students despite high rents, unscrupulous landlords, poor administration of exchange programmes, "poor to abysmal teaching" and a "both impersonal and hostile" system.
  
Conditions were the same for all Italian students. When they visited his university on exchanges, they "generally feel they have arrived at some kind of educational paradise where members of staff actually remember their names and act on their behalf after one, not ten visits". But most students returning from a year in Italy "would not have missed it for the world".

Clive Griffiths, responsible for Italian exchanges at machester University, and the subject's representative on the University Council of Modern Languages, said: "We cannot expect, and I don't think we'd want, British students to have a totally British experience while in Italy, France or wherever."

"In my experience, 99 per cent of students get something out of it. They may complain about it but the vast majority of them have a valuable academic and real life experience."

"I would be tearing my hair out if Erasmus packed up tomorrow. I would not be able to send my students to Italy with any confidence," he said.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England said in generally positive reports on languages in British universities that some should do more to support students spending some time abroad.

Its assessors of teaching quality noted that some students of Italian, particularly from larger language departments, were poorly prepared and not monitored properly during their time abroad. Reports on individual university departments have also cited cases where students in Italy were left to their own devices.


Note: This article first appeared in The Guardian on March 25 1997.