Scottish vs Italian University culture


When I told the Telegraph’s Features Editor I would like to write an article about the differences between Italian and Scottish universities, I thought it would have been an easy task. When she contacted me a couple of weeks later telling me a required length, I was startled. I thought I might even need to talk about something else, i.e. waffle, in order to get there – but let’s get down to business.

The biggest difference between the Italian and the Scottish university system is the recruiting method. In Italy you don’t have to file an application since the majority of the courses require students to sit a test in the first weeks of September. Extensive training is needed to pass this test and many begin to prepare the previous autumn. If you are lucky enough to pass this assessment test, the real struggle begins.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus solely the Average Italian Public University (AIPU).

The AIPU’s website is quite often an intricate maze, and it has pretty much no usefulness. Moreover, lecture slides are published online according to the individual professors’ discretion, always, if they use them in class rather than chalk and blackboards. Differently from here, AIPU bureaucracy takes place on paperwork; therefore students are forced to wait in kilometric lines in order to get it done.

One of the most striking discrepancies regards lab activities for science and engineering courses. Due to lack of funds, there are few, if at all, of these throughout the academic year, and they are not given much importance.

AIPUs do not have accommodations available for students coming from afar, and their student support is limited to very little grants for those who belong to lower income families. Well, at least is free, you might think. Sadly, it is not. Italian universities (not only AIPUs in this case) are the third most expensive in the EU, after England and The Netherlands. However, in these countries students get way more assistance than in Italy, where it isn’t completely clear what fees are put toward rather than scholarships and students service that are taken for granted here in Scotland, such as financial support for those who struggle.

It is interesting that students leaving Italian universities are not always ready to compete on the job market, and that’s not due to the crisis or their academic preparation. Italian firms often lament a lack of what we Italians call “soft skills”, which include teamwork, presentation abilities, and work experience as well. AIPUs’ curricula are most times based on theory, with written and/or oral exams worth 100% of the class mark taken in January-February and June-July.

Moreover, some Italian students complain when universities start up collaborations with companies, maintaining that the latter should not have a say in what is taught in public universities. There’s no need to say that here it’s quite the opposite, and that there’s a great care for all those extra-academic skills employers are looking for nowadays.

It’s rare to find well-developed students associations in AIPUs, even though there are sports clubs in some of them.

Lecture size is another big issue with AIPUs; in fact often time people can’t find any seating and have to stand still for two hours or more.

In spite of what I wrote, there are still some great universities and single departments amongst Italian Public Universities, such as the ‘Politecnico di Milano’, whose engineering school was ranked in the top 25 worldwide by the QS University rankings. Moreover, many of the AIPU’s wraths are due to insufficient government funding, which is then compensated by the high taxation I mentioned above.

This article was written with the contribution of several Italian friends of the author, who provided him with first-hand information straight out of the largest European university for enrolment, Rome’s La Sapienza.

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