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