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How do Italian Universities compare with British Universities, and the importance of Charles Dickens.

Alan R. S. Ponter's picture

Mike Ciavarelli and I discussed the possibility of doing a comparison of Italian and British Universities. On reflection, I could not decide where to begin but wrote the attached. It is part personal experience, part history and part Charles Dickens who was born 200 years ago today. If you don't understand the connection, read on.

PDF icon ItalyandDickensFeb7.pdf59.76 KB


Mike Ciavarella's picture

Dear Alan, I suspect your reply has to do more with my first letter to the Italian Government TWO PROPOSALS TO FORWARD EXCELLENCE IN ITALY than to the more recent one  10 QUESTIONS TO THE ITALIAN GOVERNMENT: Minister PROFUMO, Premier MONTI, President NAPOLITANO but your comments are so high class that, whatever you intended to reply to, you certainly have overpassed in quality to a stellar value.  And the reply is of great important to the mechanicians worldwide.  I will take the pleasure to read and digest your reply for few days, before even imagining to embark into a reply.  The discussion is very interesting, and UK universities are responding to the economic crisis much better than Italian ones, which are clearly going towards the process of fall like in Soviet Union 20 years ago.   In fact, another very interesting discussion I am having, is with an Ukranian very brigth professor, Mikail Minakov , who teaches also in Harvard in summer, about the possible similarities between the two collapses (Italy and Soviet Union universities).  More later.  For now, I have improved with some links, your marvellous text.  Yours ever, Mike



Dear Mike,

I thought about what could be done
usefully to compare the Italian and British Universities systems, but
it’s a daunting task. But I can’t help noticing how many of your
colleagues have worked at British and US universities and probably,
between yourselves, you have enough insight.

But there are important themes. The
following is somewhat digressive and I hope some of you might have
the patience to read it to the end.

Each country has its traditions and
natural advantages which just cannot be ignored. For Britain it has
always been the English Language, its position as an island and an
acceptance that real talent appears from the strangest places. Even
in the middle ages, the networks of the Church ensured that talented
students came to Oxford and Cambridge from the villages of England.
Against this, notions of class and the split between private and
state education still biases opportunity to the wealthier. But in all
my years in British Universities, no new development could be
understood without an understanding of the often ancient driving
forces which shape British society. So also is it for Italy.

The other acquired advantage of Britain
is its scientific tradition, a gift of Italy. The scientific
renaissance should have occurred in southern Europe. The genius of
the age was Galileo . But his suppression by the Church resulted in
Newton finding the vital threads in Kepler’s raw data and much else
besides. (see here for some more reassesssment ) It could have been a different story. But Britain’s
tradition is a scientific one and the application of science was
often better done by France, Germany and Italy. My alma mater
Imperial College arose from the realisation of how far Britain had
fallen behind in technical education in the mid 19th
century and the efforts of Prince Albert, a German. For me, as an
undergraduate, Newton and Hamilton were dominant figures but when I
moved on to elasticity and plasticity theory it was Castigliano ,
Betti , Poison , Euler , von Mises , Tresca , Mushkhelishvili , Rabotnov,
Katchanov, Prager, Drucker and Koiter and, of course, Giulio Maier,
who I first met in Providence. The dominant figure in plasticity in
the UK was Rodney Hill , who has recently died. He was drafted into
the subject during the war and his relations with the rest of the
subject were notoriously unfriendly. I always suspected he really saw
himself as a physicist and mathematician first.

In the broader range of my subject, if
I think of really important developments, these must include finite
elements and other numerical methods and constitutive modelling. Of
all the names I associate with these subjects I cannot think of many
Italians. But when I think of my experience of Italian students who
have come to work with me, their basic grounding in theoretical
techniques is very good indeed. Good young Italians are attracted to
our subject. Why don’t you have greater prominence? Or am I just
out of touch?

Ultimately the strength of a University
system comes down to the experience of the student. They will become
the dominant figures in 20 years time. The attitudes and values of
the society that nurture them and those with whom they work closely
will mould them and the generation to follow. In the UK in applied
science it’s always a bit of a battle as our physics colleagues
regard engineering applications of science as something they could
quite easily do themselves - if only they had the time. It’s not
the real thing. Things have improved since a senior science colleague
told me, when a member of the main board of the major research
funding council that, in his view, engineering research in the UK was
not very good but the council should fund it to keep it going. You
should not have such difficulties. But do you? What would be your
answer to my unfriendly physicist?

Because, at the end of the day, how do
you justify what you do? What is the dialogue that takes place over
which type of research should be funded and for how long? What should
you teach? Is it appropriate to work alone or should you be working
in groups, across universities? Which gives the best experience for
the young research worker? Are some of you just happy to carry on
trying to say the last word about a subject where the focus of
attention has already moved elsewhere? How is true originality
recognised or is it just numbers of papers? At an early stage in my
career I was warned against spending my whole career expanding my PhD
thesis. For most research students the best advice is to go and work
with someone doing something entirely different. Does the fact that
so many of you seem to stay in the University of the City of your
birth have an effect on this? In the UK we usually break with our
home city or town when we first go to University and rarely return.
Many years ago I asked an eminent Italian academic why he was so
interested in the subject of his paper as I just couldn’t
understand the motivation. It was as if he had never previously been
asked that question and I didn’t get an answer. It’s very
frequently asked in the UK.

Where originality is concerned, the UK
attitude in unequivocal. My PhD supervisor liked to tell the story of
a conversation he had overhead between G. I. Taylor and a senior
colleague. Taylor was the man who showed that plastic flow in metals
can be caused by dislocations, before they were observable. The
colleague wanted G.I. to meet his research student who, he claimed,
had said absolutely the last word on his thesis topic. Taylor
politely replied that he would be delighted to meet the student but
he had to say that he was only interested in those who say the first
word, not the last. Would such a conversation take place in Italy?
Alternatively what would be the equivalent conversation be,
remembered by a student fifty years later? How do you judge
originality and how do you encourage it?

All this is about the day to day
conversation, discussion and decision making processes which effect,
above all, the student. This is contained in all your individual
hands. This is where the action is. So much discussion can be about
salaries, facilities and power broking, the obsession of the
middle-aged, which of course, can be as important, but not always. I
have the impression from the cut of your suits and the cars you drive
that Italian academics have actually done rather well in recent
years. Perhaps you should begin to think of yourselves as the
generation who blew it all and turn your undivided attention to all
those young people whose lives you are danger of having messed up? Or
is this just too Anglo Saxon a way of thinking about things?

And finally, I am conscious that today,
February 7th, is the bi-centenary of the birth of Charles
Dickens, England’s second greatest writer after Shakespeare. The
Minister for Culture has given each Minister in the Government a copy
of a Dickens novel most appropriate to their problems. The Prime
Minister will receive two; Great Expectations and Hard Times. Perhaps
I’ll send you the same.

Dickens had little education. His
father sent him to a shoe blacking factory at the age of ten and he
could well have been numbered amongst the millions who disappear from
history. But, at some point in his young life he realised he had the
ability to express the burning rage about the world he saw around
him. He injected into the unwilling minds of us all for the last 180
years the notion that out lot can be shaped by the economic and
social circumstances that have been create for us and by us. I first
read Oliver Twist at the age of ten and had already been frightened
witless by the opening scene of David Lean’s film of Great
at the age of seven. A flower from Dickens’s grave was
in our family bible, placed there by an ancestor. It is still
impossible to ignore him as his grotesques are still everywhere to
see. The Murdles of this world are not just a product of a 19th
Century economy and Departments of Circumlocution spring up as
quickly as they are closed down. There are still opportunities to be
grasped, life is still full of luck and misfortune and, whatever the
circumstances of our lives, we can raise above it by strength of

Shakespeare , similarly, came from a
humble background, but at least had some sort of education at
Stratford Grammar School, a small country town grammar school not
unlike my own. My own school, King Henry VIII Grammar School in
Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, had, as its moto “Ut Prosim” – so
that we may be of service. This is a sufficiently vague moto but
certainly implying that there was more to life than just getting on.
In recent years they have changed it, disappointingly, to a phrase
I’ve already forgotten but it was something like “Onwards and
Upward” – the favourite phase used in a popular radio gardening
program. But I don’t disparage my school because the Mathematics
master introduced me to Euclid and my English master showed me the
relationship between history and literature.

Little is known about Shakespeare apart
from a few formal records. We know where he lived as a child as his
father was taken to court for leaving a pile of horse manure outside
his house. He appears in the student list of the grammar school and,
at the end of his life his final will exists, where he left his
second best bed to his wife. This paucity of information has lead to
an old theory, retold again in a recent film, that he was an
aristocrat writing under an assumed name. But his work has the mark
of a child inspired, most probably by his teachers who encouraged him
to go to London and try his luck.

But both Dickens and Shakespeare were
advantaged and given their opportunity by two things – the English
Language and the circumstances of the day. For Dickens it was the
growth of a form of journalism where weekly newspapers included a
serial story, rather like the television soap operas of today, avidly
read by an increasingly affluent and educated middle class. From
first writing short amusing pieces he moved on to his novels written
in monthly episode, sometimes with little idea in Dickens’s mind
where the story would lead. This provided the structure and funds
which kept him writing. For Shakespeare it was the theatre during the
reign of Elizabeth I which required new plays, reflecting the
circumstances of the day, to be available on demand, with little
censorship. If Dickens had died in the Blacking Factory or
Shakespeare had died from disease from his father’s carelessness
with manure, others would have written but certainly not as well. The
literary forms were created by others to satisfy the needs of the
time; we were lucky that, within the strong literary tradition of the
English language, two geniuses emerged. So what are your natural
advantages and opportunities of your age? Who will emerge from your
Universities in 20 years time to light up the world.?

Italy has great traditions and it is
not for me to understand the world in which you live, but, often, it
is the less obvious that is most important.

Mike, you can put this on the web only
under the condition that you and your colleagues give me the answer
to my questions.

Kindest regards


Mike Ciavarella's picture

dear Alan 

 The first  is that your paper has been published in the journal of the Highly Cited Scientists in Italy, where I hope the discussion can restart in Italy

 The second is as I told you on the phone, there will be this meeting in Politecnico di TORINO on March 17th:- 

6 leaders of important associations of university professors, all together covering probably the majority of them, will be there, and COSAU is the umbrella organization of 6 main associations of university professors, CIPUR, CISAL, CNRU, CNU, of which I can send you the web sites, if I am not wrong.  Prof. Franco Indiveri is the leader of COSAU and organizer of the event,

these are led by Prof. Giuseppe Chisari  (Res. SNALS Docenti Università),  "Prof. Paolo Manzini" , Prof. Vittorio MANGIONE (CIPUR)  "Prof. Leo PEPPE" , Marco Merafina ,  Giuseppe Chisari ,  Paolo Gianni ,  Riccardo Marini (CISAL),  Roberto Chionne , and Paolo Simone.

The idea would be for you to deliver a Lectio Magistralis on English University system, in particular as we discussed on the phone, both with reference to your paper
How do Italian Universities compare with British Universities, and the importance of Charles Dickens.
This has generated lots of interest in Italy, as everyone can see from the Imechanica blog, and now is published in the journal
In particular, your speach is March 17 at 15.30 and would last about 30 min.   I would hope that in the mean time you can identify, after our blog discusion, that there is a parallel of our situation in Italy now, and that in UK at the beginning of the 1980's, when Margaret Tacther attacked public universities reducing their budget by about 20%.
To me the parallel is strikingly good, and you have 30 years experience on how you recovered, even though the parallel has limitations since UK Universities were in much greater shape, especially Oxford and Cambridge of course.
The new economical crisis and the conservative party idea to increase fees, are also inspiring the former Berlusconi government, and the action of the new Monti government, who has to deal with the only Reform that Berlusconi government completed, that GELMINI law 240 / 2010, which still lacks however many ingredients, and is causing a lot of troubles.
We shall keep in touch about the title of your speach, the program, and perhaps my friends can tell you more about the possible AUDIENCE.  

Michele Ciavarella, Politecnico di BARI - Italy, Rector's delegate.

Mike Ciavarella's picture

dear Alan,
    some interesting links on Margaret Thatcher on wikipedia, and her cuts to schools, and then Universities.  The parallel with Minister Gelmini and then Profumo is not too good, as Gelmini is a nullity, and Profumo is just an accountant.  But the general trend is similar.  Now I am trying to find if there is a good article summarizing what happened in UK from Thacther on.
Regards, Mike

Education Secretary (1970–1974)

The Conservative party under Edward Heath won the 1970 general election, and Thatcher was appointed Secretary of State for Education and Science. In her first months in office she attracted public attention as a result of the administration's attempts to cut spending. She gave priority to academic needs in schools,[42] and imposed public expenditure cuts on the state education system, resulting in the abolition of free milk for schoolchildren aged seven to eleven.[43] She held that few children would suffer if schools were charged for milk, but she agreed to provide younger children with a third of a pint daily, for nutritional purposes.[43] Her decision provoked a storm of protest from the Labour party and the press,[44] and led to the moniker "Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher".[43] Thatcher wrote in her autobiography: "I learned a valuable lesson [from the experience]. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit."[44][45]

Thatcher's term of office was marked by proposals for more local education authorities to close grammar schools and to adopt comprehensive secondary education. Although she was committed to a tiered secondary modern-grammar school system of education, and determined to preserve grammar schools,[42] during her tenure as Education Secretary she turned down only 326 of 3,612 proposals for schools to become comprehensives; the proportion of pupils attending comprehensives rose from 32% to 62%.[46]

The Conservative party under Edward Heath won the 1970 general election, and Thatcher was appointed Secretary of State for Education and Science. In her first months in office she attracted public attention as a result of the administration's attempts to cut spending. She gave priority to academic needs in schools,[42] and imposed public expenditure cuts on the state education system, resulting in the abolition of free milk for schoolchildren aged seven to eleven.[43] She held that few children would suffer if schools were charged for milk, but she agreed to provide younger children with a third of a pint daily, for nutritional purposes.[43] Her decision provoked a storm of protest from the Labour party and the press,[44] and led to the moniker "Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher".[43] Thatcher wrote in her autobiography: "I learned a valuable lesson [from the experience]. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit."[44][45]
Thatcher was honorary Chancellor of the College of William and Mary in Virginia (1993–2000)[182] and also of the University of Buckingham (1992–1999), the UK's first private university, which she had opened in 1975.[183]


Economy and taxation

Thatcher's economic policy was influenced by monetarist thinking and economists such as Milton Friedman.[69] Together with Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe, she lowered direct taxes on income and increased indirect taxes.[70] She increased interest rates to slow the growth of the money supply and thereby lower inflation,[69] introduced cash limits on public spending, and reduced expenditures on social services such as education and housing.[70] Her cuts in higher education spending resulted in her being the first Oxford-educated post-war Prime Minister not to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Oxford, after a 738 to 319 vote of the governing assembly and a student petition.[71] Her new centrally-funded City Technology Colleges did not enjoy much success, and the Funding Agency for Schools was set up to control expenditure by opening and closing schools; the Social Market Foundation, a right-wing think tank, described it as having "an extraordinary range of dictatorial powers".[72]

Mike Ciavarella's picture

I hope some more people contribute to the discussion.  Fortunately,these blogs permit open discussion, which is far more effective than
meeting, phone calls, and Emails, as we progressively used. You may have
noticed that all the big changes are now introduced via blogs and
facebook.   And both have their core at Harvard. I suppose I should
visit Harvard, perhaps in the summer :)

But I hope more people become active in imechanica on this theme. In
Europe I suspect that you do not realize, except for Max Planck or other
few top places, how people are suffering from stupid reforms going
nowhere.  In UK maybe situation is better, again especially in Oxford
and Cambridge.  And the people in the good positions, like Oxford and
Cambridge and Harvard, should take their few precious minutes to
partecipate to debates.

In fact, one of the main ideators of the Reforms, perhaps in good faith,
is Prof. Alesina from Harvard .  He is making a damage to Italy that
probably he himself does not realize, and in return what does he get!   Of course, after his first open speaches in 2003 about creating a new large institution, Italian Institute of Technology , he obtained that now he is in IIT board.   But is some
personal position in boards, i.e. perhaps some retribution but in all case small money, good reason to make huge damage to history of the most ancient and precious University system in the world???

Very sad. If you are in
Harvard and have a chance to talk to Alberto Alesina, tell him please
that University in Italy is being destroyed also because of his ideas,
to save only Bocconi (whose president is Premier Monti, of course,
paradoxically he was European Commissior for Antitrust, and now he has
the biggest conflict of interest of history of Italy !!).  Needless to say, Alesina's Alma Mater is also Bocconi....

Needless to say, Bocconi people think they are much better than, say, Politecnico di Bari.  In fact, in the SCIMAGO classification , Bocconi is very low, at 629 position (!) despite charging a lot of money BOTH from taxpayers and from students, and Politecnico di BARI is only few positions below, charging 5 to 10 times less, as the first Public University in Italy! 

Yet Politecnico is very low in the official ranking, and is getting no funding at all this year, actually large cuts, while Bocconi is trying to get leadership and even more profit!  All this in constrast to any good common sense, and all history as geniuses as Shakespeare and Dickens (and to a lower extent, Alan Ponter) have shown.

Can you even imagine?  Maybe Alberto Alesina himself does not even know all this!  Can anyone open his eyes?


Michele Ciavarella, Politecnico di BARI - Italy, Rector's delegate.

Xosé Manuel Carreira's picture

Dear Mike,

As you know, since 1999, 46 European countries (not only the 27 countries of the UE, but also most of the former USSR, Turkey, the former Iugoslavia, etc...) have been engaged in reconstructing the higher education systems to bring about a greater degree of “convergence” and to create a European framework of academic and professional degrees.

The road is very difficult, with ups and downs, trials and errors, especially in times of economic and social crisis but the reforms are necessary. To be able to communicate in English fluently (and if possible, to know a little French and/or German) is also part of the process of europeanization of students, researchers, lecturers and professors.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, Europe was light years behind the US and there is still a long way to go to create a more or less competitive area.
However, I do not buy the idea that the distance between British and Italian universities is abysmal. Nowadays, the best British universities are clearly more productive or more prestigious than the best Italian ones but the British system as a whole is not much better than the Italian system as a whole.

In fact, according to Webometrics, there are five UK universities in the top 100 and only two Italian universities, but there eight UK universities in the top 200 and seven Italian universties in the top 200.
24 - University of Cambridge
36 - University of Oxford
42 - University College London
75 - University of Edinburgh
81 - University of Southampton
142 - University of Glasgow
154 - University of Warwick
164 - University of Manchester
211 - University of Nottingham
61 - Università di Bologna
89 - Università di Pisa     
121 - Università degli Studi di Padova       
128 - Università degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza     
192 - Università degli Studi di Firenze       
195 - Università degli Studi di Milano           
198 - Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II           
243 - Politecnico di Milano

In my humble opinion, the great and obvious advantage of the British university system over the Italian one is that in the UK everyone speaks English and English is the lingua franca of our time. Unfortunately, the Italian language is not so international, it is more difficult to attract international students and the tuition fees need to be lower.

Kind regards,

Mike Ciavarella's picture

As you yoursef pointed out, different rankings can differ.  

But the risk that in UK some patters are vaguely similar to those in Italy, mainly the shift of really top research as measured by Nobel Prize, is real.

Read this please first .


Let us use reliable data to try to discern the truth. In the last 20
years, Oxford has won no Nobel Prizes. (Nor has Warwick.) Cambridge has
done only slightly better. Stanford University in the United States,
purportedly number 19 in the world, garnered three times as many Nobel
Prizes over the past two decades as the universities of Oxford and
Cambridge did combined. Worryingly, this period since the mid 1980s
coincides precisely with the span over which UK universities have had to
go through government Research Assessment Exercises (RAEs).

Very interesting!

And very similar to my conclusion when I interviewed to the former President of Italian Constitutional Court. 

See here .   I can add a quick translation, sorry if it is not perfect, but mostly google translate, of our public conversation....There is video to witness the words.



I wanted to ask a question on "Universities and the Constitution." From
what I understand it is not written on the Constitution that the
University should be public, whereas there is compulsory education.
The university I think it is not right guaranteed by the Constitution that should be public.

over many centuries the Italian University has been mostly Public and u
ntil at least the 80s (last century), has always been growing, has always been centralized under a Ministry. It
became autonomous (Reform Ruberti, interpreting Article .33
Constitution), and lately, on the basis of this autonomy, the
funding comes from the University is no longer based on "time series",
but there are parts of so-called
criteria for "merit" of which there was gradually more and more
critical and rebellion by several authoritative sources.
(Also because it defined a posteriori, always changing, and easily subject to manipulation in a context devoid of ethics, ed)

it has reached a very strong fight, which I think will lead to the
abolition of the legal value of the qualification and, in particular, 3
of 4 State Universities in Puglia are now being underfunded by the Ministry
MIUR with the clear goal of depleting the
resources, although they are also great tradition of great universities.

in everything, including the establishment of discrimination between
people who are taken in these universities and are now presumed innocent
with respect to such collective guilt of those universities.

think there are various profiles of Unconstitutionality in this
process, which actually takes the attitudes of pure political propaganda
if, for example.
last government in the last letter he wrote to Europe (one in 39
points, ed), that the time series of the funding will go (within 5-7
years) to zero!
does one go to zero when there are open-ended contracts having to be
paid (and even weigh about 90% of funding, other than zero)?

I mean, on a philosophical level, you believe that the Constitution
protects and preserves a degree of Post University also well distributed
within the country?
's possible that a whole region can be attached and then depleted with
implications on the general "Virtuosity" of the country, the "rating" of
the country, that fact is not "Virtuoso" at the moment?
Thank you.



Professor (Ciavarella is surprised and mocks, and Zagrebelsky asked him
if he does so for calling him a "Distinguished"),

I have since left the C.Costituzionale I never said anything specific about matters that may then get to C.Costituzionale.

"ethics of the former Head" should be not to do from outside the "Jiminy
Cricket" (the retired President should not try to put pressure on the present President): I remember that was bothering me that when someone did.

But I can only say one thing. That
the way in which we deal with the problems of Education is
unfortunately a "business-oriented" and this is a betrayal of the deepest
vocation of education especially higher studies.

then when you do the ratings (between University, ed) you go to see
"Productivity," the report members / graduates, the rate of absorption
of graduates into the workforce, the local production.

'the continuation of the "logic of three": "Enterprise, Internet,
English," launched this logic by previous governments for the Middle
School, but now is spreading to the University.  (Reference to Berlusconi electoral Campaign).

If you think about all this with the "Culture" has almost nothing to do.

"three" and what is shaping up (see what happens with the University),
what happened, places, places, problems in the logic of Education
e-cu-if-you-go, the "three
"indicate a formation as executive, but the culture is different.

the issues of Constitutionality I think we should also have the pride
to say that the University can not be reduced to a thing like that.

which then further urges our responsibility because we cut down the
speeches today, abbatono proposals today, and we are also culled, have
fertile ground in what: to the extent of the inefficiency of which we
all must take responsibility, we are not

I'm retired now, so I was not blameless either.








Io volevo fare una domanda su “Università e Costituzione”. Da quello che mi risulta non è scritto sulla Costituzione che l’Università debba essere pubblica, mentre invece c’è la scuola dell’obbligo. L’Università che io sappia non è proprio garantito dalla Costituzione che debba essere Pubblica.

Tuttavia, nel corso di molti secoli l’Università italiana di fondo è stata Pubblica e fino ad un certo punto, si è molto espansa. Fino almeno agli anni ’80 (del secolo scorso), è sempre andata crescendo, è stata sempre centralizzata sotto un Ministero. Poi è diventata Autonoma (Riforma Ruberti, interpretando l'art.33 Costituzione, ndr), e ultimamente, sulla base di questa Autonomia, il finanziamento che arriva all’Università non è più basato su “serie storiche”, ma ci sono parti cosiddette “meritocratiche”, per criteri “meritocratici” su cui vi è stata via via sempre più critica e più ribellione da parte di varie autorevoli fonti.
(anche perchè definiti a posteriori, sempre mutevoli, e facilmente aggirabili in un contesto privo di etica, ndr)

Ultimamente si è raggiunto uno scontro davvero forte, che penso porterà alla abolizione del valore legale del titolo di studio e in particolare, 3 Università Statali su 4 in Puglia sono oggi oggetto di obiettivo sottofinanziamento da parte del MIUT con l’obiettivo chiaro di depauperare di risorse, nonostante siano anche grandi Università di grande Tradizione.

Ora, in tutto ciò, creando anche delle discriminazioni tra persone che sono assunte in queste Università e quindi sono oggi incolpevoli rispetto a tali presunte colpe collettive di tali Università.

Io credo che ci siano vari profili di Incostituzionalità in questo processo, che addirittura assume degli atteggiamenti di pura propaganda politica quando per es. l’ultimo Governo ha scritto nell’ultima lettera all’Europa (quella in 39 punti, ndr), che la parte serie storiche del finanziamento andrà (entro 5-7 anni) a zero! Come si fa ad andare a zero quando ci sono dei contratti a tempo indeterminato da dover essere pagati (e che pesano persino per circa il 90% del finanziamento, altro che zero!)?

Quindi, volevo dire, a livello filosofico, Lei ritiene che la Costituzione preservi e protegga un certo grado di Università Pubblica anche ben distribuito nell’ambito del Paese? E’ possibile che una Regione intera possa essere attaccata e depauperata con risvolti poi generali sulla “Virtuosità” del Paese, del “rating” del Paese, che infatti non è “Virtuoso” al momento? Grazie. Min.23.22


Illustre Professore (Ciavarella si sorprende e schernisce, e Zagrebelsky gli domanda se lo fa per la per averlo chiamato “Illustre”),

io da quando sono uscito dalla C.Costituzionale non ho mai detto nulla di preciso su questioni che possano poi arrivare alla C.Costituzionale.

La “deontologia dell’ex” dovrebbe essere quella di non fare da fuori il “grillo parlante”: ricordo che dava fastidio a me questo quando qualcuno lo faceva.

Però posso solo dire una cosa. Che il modo con cui si affrontano i problemi dell’Istruzione è purtroppo un modo aziendalistico e questo è un tradimento profondo della vocazione degli studi di Istruzione soprattutto quelli superiori.

Perché poi quando si fanno le graduatorie (tra Università, ndr) si va a vedere la “Produttività”, il rapporto iscritti / laureati, il tasso di assorbimento dei laureati nella forza lavoro, nel tessuto produttivo locale.

E’ la prosecuzione della “logica delle tre i”: “Impresa, Internet, Inglese”, lanciata questa logica da governi precedenti per le Scuole medie, ma che adesso si sta estendendo all’Università.

Se ci riflettete tutto ciò con la “Cultura” non ha quasi nulla a che fare.

Queste “tre i” e ciò che si preannuncia (vediamo cosa succederà con l’Università), ciò che è accaduto, inserisce, colloca, i problemi dell’Istruzione nella logica e-se-cu-ti-va, le “tre i” indicano una formazione di tipo esecutivo, ma la cultura è un’altra cosa.

Aldilà dei problemi di Costituzionalità io credo che dovremmo avere anche l’orgoglio di dire che l’Università non può ridursi ad una cosa di questo genere.

Il chè poi ulteriormente sollecita la nostra responsabilità perché i discorsi che oggi si abbattono, le proposte che oggi si abbatono, e si sono anche abbattute, hanno terreno fertile in che cosa: nei limiti della inefficienza di cui tutti noi dobbiamo farci carico, non siamo incolpevoli.

Io oramai sono in pensione, quindi non sono stato incolpevole nemmeno io.

Michele Ciavarella, Politecnico di BARI - Italy, Rector's delegate.

Mike Ciavarella's picture

Dear Xose,


until we are talking of different ways of comparing Universities, we can argue.   Here is however the OFFICIAL funding variation of Italian Universities, i.e. the tax payer money.   Fondo di Funzionamento Ordinario is the 7 billions Euros that Minister of Education puts (mostly for salaries these days), to the entire Italian University System.    So I have the data for FFO in the 4 years period 2008 – 2011.   See some surprise now.

 The average funding has decreased in this period of 7%.  However, some Universities have increased their funding to large extents, for unclear reasons, while others have been punished to a also large extent.  See if you find ANY correlation AT ALL with ANY of the classifications, and ranking according to merit.!!

For more detail in italian ,see my blog here .  I have the full EXCEL file but I need to post it somewhere else.

Var – Var_Average [%]     ---- INSTITUTION

50,1% Scuola IMT - Istituzioni, Mercati, Tecnologie - Alti Studi - LUCCA
36,8% U. de L'AQUILA
16,8% U. TRENTO
10,9% U. del SANNIO di BENEVENTO
10,7% Politecnico di TORINO
8,7% U. "Magna Graecia" di CATANZARO
8,3% U. ROMA "Foro Italico"
7,4% Politecnico di MILANO
6,6% U. "Ca' Foscari" di VENEZIA
5,8% U. dsd ROMA "Tor Vergata"
5,3% Scuola Normale Superiore di PISA
5,2% U. INSUBRIA Varese-Como
5,2% Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati di TRIESTE
5,1% U. ds ROMA TRE
4,9% Scuola Sup. di Studi Univ. e Perfezionamento S.Anna di PISA
4,9% U. per Stranieri di PERUGIA
4,1% U. UDINE
3,2% U. VERONA
3,0% U. MILANO
3,0% U. del PIEMONTE ORIENTALE "A. Avogadro"-Vercelli
2,2% U. SIENA
1,9% U. PAVIA
1,8% U. PADOVA
1,4% U. Stranieri di SIENA
1,1% U. della TUSCIA
0,6% U. TORINO
0,5% U. Politecnica delle MARCHE
0,3% U. "G. d'Annunzio" CHIETI-PESCARA

-0,4% U. dsd PISA
-0,5% U. dsd PARMA
-0,5% U. dsd GENOVA
-0,7% U. ds del MOLISE
-1,0% U. ds "Mediterranea" di REGGIO CALABRIA
-1,5% SUM - Istituto Italiano di SCIENZE UMANE di FIRENZE
-1,6% U. dsd NAPOLI "Parthenope"
-1,7% U. dsd PERUGIA
-2,4% U. dsd BASILICATA
-2,5% U. dsd SALERNO
-2,6% U. dsd FOGGIA
-2,7% U. dsd TRIESTE
-2,9% Politecnico  di BARI
-3,0% U. dsd CASSINO
-3,5% U. dsd URBINO "Carlo BO"
-3,6% I.U.S.S. - Istituto Universitario di Studi Superiori - PAVIA
-4,8% U. dsd TERAMO
-5,0% U. dsd ROMA "La Sapienza"
-5,1% Seconda U. dsd NAPOLI
-5,2% U. ds del SALENTO
-5,2% U. dsd NAPOLI "Federico II"
-5,3% U. IUAV di VENEZIA
-5,4% U. dsd CATANIA
-5,7% U. dsd CAGLIARI
-5,9% U. dsd BARI
-5,9% U. dsd SASSARI
-6,7% U. dsd NAPOLI "L'Orientale"
-7,2% U. dsd MESSINA
-7,2% U. dsd PALERMO 



The best Universities according to your classification are those with constant funding, or with funding cuts, whereas Minister Profumo ex University, Politecnico di TORINO, is always in the top of funding, and also Trento University, which is rich by itself already, since the province is very rich.  

But top of the least, appear an University so far, I don't think anybody has noticed: IMT Lucca.  What is this IMT Lucca?


What I find in the web is a lot of scandal, and that the promoter was the then President of Senate Marcello Pera, Senator with Berlusconi,  and who wrote a book with a certain Cardinal Ratzinger. Now Pope.

  1. Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam cache - Simili - Traduci questa pagina

    Hai fatto +1 pubblicamente su questo elemento. Annulla

    Joseph Ratzinger now Pope Benedict XVI & Marcello Pera. "The Universalization of European Culture and the Ensuing Crisis." In Without Roots: The West, ...

  2. Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity ... › ... › CatholicismCopia cache - Simili - Traduci questa pagina

    Hai fatto +1 pubblicamente su questo elemento. Annulla Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam (9780465006274): Joseph Ratzinger, Marcello Pera: Books.


See some articles about controversial with the local University of PISA.


  1. La Nazione - Lucca - Marcello Pera

  2. [DOC] 
    Il piano segreto di Pisa per ridimensionare l'Imt - Marcello Pera

  3. IMT Alti Studi Lucca - Wikipedia

  4. IMT di Lucca, la verità del "mostro di Lucca" | Fondazione Magna Carta

  5. IMT in breve - IMT, Institute for Advanced Studies Lucca - Scuola di ...

  6. Doctoral Program in Institutions, Politics and Policies - IMT, Institute ...

  7. Inaugural Ceremonies - IMT, Institute for Advanced Studies Lucca ...

  8. Vita, morte e miracoli dell' Imt superateneo di Lucca voluto da Pera ...

  9. convento di San Francesco - IMT scuola - Lucca - Toscana

So do you have any idea to suggest?


Michele Ciavarella, Politecnico di BARI - Italy, Rector's delegate.

Alan R. S. Ponter's picture

There is a clear split between Southern and Northern Italian Universities, with those in the south fairing significantly less well. Does this correlate with their international standing or is there some other reason for this? By this criterion Bari does relatively well.There is a well known phenomenon of tables like this when you compare institutes of very different sizes. The reduction or increases for large institutions reflect an overall picture but for small specialist institutions, it is similar to asking how an individual department in a large institution fare. If there is, for example, a bias to supporting certain types of activity, then a small institution that specialises in such activities will do proportionately better than a large institution with an entire range of activities. So don't be too hasty to point the finger at  Scuola IMT - Istituzioni, Mercati, Tecnologie - Alti Studi - LUCCA. But the North-South split is noticeable.

In the UK, funding to individual Universities is made by the Higher Education Funding Council, a body set up, under Regulation, independent of Government but with policies and overall funding level strongly influenced by Government policy of the day. Funding is near formulaic with so much to teach students in different subject and for general support of research based on actual grant income from other bodies and also crucially an assessment of quality gather from the five yearly Research Assessment Exercise (which is predominantly peer review). So if a British University suffered a loss of income they know why - because their research is not regarded as sufficiently good (department by department) or they have failed to recruit enough students (or even told to reduce student numbers in particular subjects), as well as the fall in the overall budget. It was not always so. Prior to the mid '80s UK Universities were funded by a complex set of historic levels that were 'nudged' each year.

From your concerns I gather, Mike, that none of you know why individual Universities fare well or badly, resulting in a suspicion that the system is unfairly biased for reasons you can't believe.


Mike Ciavarella's picture

Dear Alan

 that there is a preference to fund the rich north, this is evident, as you say, and more exactly was suggested by Rectors of the South - East, see here .

 However, on the way funding is allocated, you are being negligent.  I had given you my "Manual of the Virtuous Rector" of 2010, which contains the criteria of 2009, which have been changed only by small amounts.  

 They think they are measuring car production, not culture!

See some extracts.   First, some Intro, in a later post, the meritocratic "Criteria" ...




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The July 2009 law introduced, in the
words of the young Minister Ms Gelmini, a “meritocratic” reward
[1] for the first time in Italy. The "competition" was
launched by the parameters specified “ (a posteriori”!) by the regulators defining
a classification of Italian "virtuous" and “vicious" Universities
among which only a relatively small portion (7%, i.e. about Eu 500Ml) of the ordinary
funding was distributed this year. In fact, the system is less new than what
appears, as it has been used from 1995
[2], so the interesting “marketing” strategy was to simply the
idea to declare the classification of those universities which increased or
lost more as compared to previous year’s funding. The change depends both on
the value of the historical “non-meritocratic” funding, and on the
“meritocratic” one, and obviously, since the latter is only 7% of the total,
its effect is relatively minor. A lot more should be said on the 93% of the
reasons for the historical funding than for the 7% of “meritocratic one”, which
of course opens the discussion on the way to measure “merit”. However, the
impact in the public opinion was remarkable, not only in the perception in the
press, but also because about half of Italian universities are in debt, and
hence a further reduction of their funding, despite only by few percents, makes
many situations critical enough to fear “commissariamento” i.e. first step before
bankruptcy.  It was however predictable
that the chaos started just before the collapse.  Until the 100% stable funding was perceived
as “large” and constant (which in fact it never was), there was never risk of
large cases of bankruptcy and the Rectors or aspiring Rectors generally queued
in the Ministry’s office to perhaps open a new University campus or so. There
was very vague discussion of “merit” at all, and it was all based on “ethics”.
A good discussion, despite necessarily politically oriented, is by W.Tocci
[3] .

There was a similar process in UK,
where however questions of merit began much earlier than with us.

[1]This is only very loosely similar to
the English RAE (Research Assessment Exercise, see e.g. wikipedia) which has
been running for more than 20 years already in UK, and is now changed into a
new system (REF, Research Excellence Framework, which focus more on “impact”)
one obvious difference is that the
RAE has always defined parameters well in advance of the RAE 4 years cycle, in
order for the Universities to make appropriate steps.. The previous Italian evaluation (CIVR), was
based on data about 10 years old, and had no effect in funding until now. Surprisingly
close to the “Todos caballeros” philosophy is the fact that 30% of the “items”
suggested by Universities were judged “excellent”.

Università, una graduatoria di merito?, Alessandro Figà Talamanca, 2 sett.09,

Walter Tocci Quale riforma per l'università: Critica della proposta Gelmini, e
autocritica delle politiche di centrosinistra,




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The "Bologna" process
started about 10 years ago, and in Italy resulted in pressure to "align"
our graduates to average European standards, reduce the delay in the average
age at graduation (and also abandons), and the low general percentage of
graduates (about half the OECD countries’ average). We moved to "3+2"
Decree 509 of 1999 (3 years Bachelor + 2 years Master Degree). The results today,
despite lots of efforts, are modest: graduates who complete the five years cycle,
ie 60% of the Bachelor graduates, increased only by 20%
[1]. “Unfortunately”, also other European countries must have
increased of the same amount, since a recent Eurostat report suggests the
percentage of men with degree in the age range from 25 to 64 in Italy is
exactly half of the European average (11,6% against 23,2%), and worse only
Malta (9,9%), Romania (10,7%) and
Ceck Republic (11,6%)
[2]. So we are back to before Bologna!  The first in the class are danish (30,9%) and dutch
(32,7%) for men, and estonian (38,8%) and finnish (39,4%) for women.

And it is certainly not only
question of money. In 2002, student fees were at about 1.1 Eu billion – five
years later, about 2 billions, because of increasing pressures. Doubling the
figures doesn’t seem to have changed anything remotely like doubling quality.

The proliferation (positive, in a
theoretical system with infinite resources) of number of degree courses (now
over 5000), and of small branch offices of Universities (more than 300, for 94
Universities), which was implemented to capture the many Italian students who
wants be "in house" with parents (either to save or more commonly to
leave with “mamma”), but also the Italian classical idea to expand in the hope
of getting more resources in the future, was considered excessive, and the Law
270 of 2004 sought corrections. Just 5 years later, these are already
considered too small by a government of the same color, and now the "Law
271" is under preparation with a further close. Minister Gelmini, with an
unprecedented move, sent a draft of the law with the threat of very tight
parameters around to University Rectors, to get some feedback, and paradoxical
situations seem to have appeared, such as faculty degree courses with no
teacher who can neither be moved or fired, by Italian habits and laws. This
perhaps explains the indecision in promulgating it. Conventional wisdom, again,
advised to "take the bull by the horns", or give up calling the
doctor and take medication which is always likely to give side effects.

Meanwhile, the pursuing of the "number" of
students alone, and not their quality, seems to have created a much larger
problem than proliferation of degree programs and locations, of which but
nobody speaks. Stimulated by loss of control at all levels, where accreditation
of universities to deliver “legal titles” degrees comes only on institution of
the University, and is never reversed, to the best of my knowledge, today Italian
Universities offer “A degree with honors
for everyone”
, paraphrasing one of Berlusconi’s well know slogans. This is,
unfortunately, supported by the data: the average degree mark, which was
already very high ten years ago (103 to 110), now reaches values close to the maximum
in the Master degrees (108.7 to 110!). Roger Abravanel in Meritocrazia
(Garzanti, 2008) notices that the “magna cum laude” top degree with honors is
at about 30% nationwide, with much higher localized peaks. A "selling out”
which justifies the widespread feeling that "Magna cum Laude" is like
the "todos caballeros" of Charles V of
Spain. In England, by contrast, where the degree value has no legal effect,
only 11% of the candidates wins the highest mark of "First", and
rarely fits a "Starred First" (
Cambridge, York) or "Congratulatory First" (Oxford)[3].  I would investigate
immediately those universities which give top marks more than one standard
deviation from the average, to start with.

With this background situation in 2008, it
therefore came natural to think that this process could have something to do
with self-excited instability phenomena, which I have studied in the past,
where every change to correct one problem introduces additional damage, not
just side effects.  Specifically, the
doubt that the new "meritocracy" rules of the "University
Package" launched in July 2009, with the ranking of the "virtuous"
universities, could be the first concrete and tangible incentive to generate
decisive "virtuous" sell-off of degrees, exams, and grades, without
curing the disease. Moreover, to generate even a direct immediate “damage” to
the work market and competitiveness of
Italy, by feeding or even creating an ultra-flexible devalued
labor market.  All this, perhaps in good
faith by the Minister, and because of lack of appropriate counter-measures and
feedback loops. So I tried to study with scientific method, an engineer, data
on graduates and labor market, crossing some of them in a way which seems to me
the original.


[1] Andrea Cammelli, Le caratteristiche del capitale
umano dell’università: prima e dopo la Riforma, AlmaLaurea 2009

[2] (for women, it is slightly better, 12.8 vs 22.7).

[3] SFR
117: Higher education student enrolments and qualifications obtained at higher
education institutions in the
for the
academic year 2006/07, Higher Education Statistics Agency,
10 January 2008



Michele Ciavarella, Politecnico di BARI - Italy, Rector's delegate.

Mike Ciavarella's picture

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The mix of parameters used by the Ministry to compile
the latest ranking of "virtuous" universities, on "the quality
of teaching" (accounting for 1 / 3) are:

1) almost half (40%) depends on the amount of students
who register for the second year, having made at least 2 / 3 of the first year
exams. This "rewards universities which
value teaching quality and in general universities that act against students’ dispersal”
But with the loose Italian system of grading, which is in the full hands of
Professors without any control, what would it take for Professors to give up
all ethics and give for once and for free all the exams, at the end of the
first year, going up in the score! What danger do they incur? Who punishes the
teachers who will do that? A “virtuous” but unethical Rector could suggest it,
perhaps without making too much noise, teacher by teacher. It must be said that
some beneficial effect of this new parameter has been to have Rectors notice
their administrators did not register the exams fast enough to make this
parameter high.

About the remaining three parameters that weigh each
for a 20%:

2) the "percentage of graduates finding work in 3
years from graduation" But what kind of work? In recent years, the Italian
job market has considerably increased the gap between extremely rigid permanent
contracts for those who entered, and extremely "flexible" contracts at
minimum levels (think of the "call center"). As suggested by a
popular and remarkable book by an Italian young phd student in Carnegie Mellon,
Irene Tinagli
[1], the 28.2 percent of graduates is today under 800 euros per
month (while only 14 % of those with primary or 14.1% of those with secondary
education only). Of all OECD countries, we are the one which pays less
graduates between 30 and 40 years --- clear trends towards motivation to start
work sooner rather than studying. The "piece
of paper
" (a popular expression in Italy until so far, when the laurea
gave you access to all the world of stable and well paid professions) may cost less
in Italy than in other countries in terms of University fees, but it is so
largely loosing value, that in fact according to these statistics, it is a waste in terms of time and money, on
[2]. That the market has spotted this is in fact proved by the percentage
of "worker-students" (meaning full time job, not just occasional
ones) which is steadily rising on a national scale but, few years ago at about
2% as it was perceived as impossible to study and work at the same time under
the old system, now at about 10% of all students. A good "virtuoso" Rector
can manage to grab workers-students in mass, by implementing unfair advantages
to those who do not attend lessons regularly, perhaps using the new “online”
university system.
Eurostat suggests sligthly different figures (9,0% in women and 6,4% in
men), however suggests that in
Europe the % is much higher: 23,3% and
19,3%, respectively. This suggests there is certainly trend to double this
number in
Italy. This means an additional 10% of 2 billions,
which is not a bad 200 millions, the same order of magnitude of the entire
“virtuous” fund distributed among universities. 
The virtuous Rector has some back-of-envelope calculations made here…
One could also hope to get a larger share of the population of non-graduated
workers (in
Italy, about 18millions). We could hope
for, say, 10 millions. We let them pay slightly more than the average student
fee, which in
Italy is about 700Eu, since they have a
salary. So, I would recommend 3000Eu. That makes no less than 30 billions Eu,
i.e. more than 4 times the present funding – which would align at least in
terms of %, closer to the other nations!

3) "for
the universities that give classes with their permanent teachers and limiting
the use of contracts and foreign teachers.
" This in the intention of
the legislator, "to limit the bad practice
of proliferation of courses and lessons performed by personnel other than
,". However, who created this proliferation, if not the
initial idea of attracting more students are possible? It certainly accentuated
the italic trend of students living at home with parents (51.3% in 2008 instead
of 46.4% in 2001), particularly among graduates of the first level, less in
graduate programs where students may feel the need move. Should we cut, it
would be a “return to the future”. The "virtuous" Rector who does not
want to upset anyone will take the best Italic geniuses to find solutions to
work around the problem ("confederation" between universities,
"inter-university" courses) with results to date can not be estimated
but probably closer to the rule of commutative Algebra: “changing the order of the factors, the product does not change”,
which is also what is know in Italy as Gattopardo’s philosophy from the
sentence of Marques Tancredi in Tomasi di Lampedusa romance, famous for the
Visconti movie version (see Fig.1) with Alain Delon, Burt Lancaster and a young
Claudia Cardinale “Everything has to
change, if nothing is going to change
! Not being able to resolve given the
lack of real decision-making tools, as firing or even moving teachers from one
location to another, in
Italy would be a matter for a highly unpopular reform of colossal
dimensions, whereas today everyone speaks of "shared reforms". The
Rector "Virtuoso" can not quickly convince large numbers of students
to move out of their homes, and vice versa will try to convince that you can
get a degree without attending and effortlessly. To pay occasional foreign or
prestige teachers, the first goal of the original idea which was especially
convenient with an University system which is one of the most “splendidly
isolated” in the world
[3], with the deficits in the budget, must be classified as “non-virtuous”,
and to be avoided like the plague.

Fig.1 – A scene from Gattopardo. Luchino Visconti,


4) for 20% to “the universities which give students the opportunity questionnaire to
assess the quality of teaching and the satisfaction degree courses attended”
Notice that the ability is not to receive good evaluations from students, but
just an evaluation at all. Hence, paradoxically, a 100% very bad evaluation
would result in a very high score! The "Virtuoso" Rector will give
the questionnaires to all students next year, and will put them in his desk’s
tray. Even if next year this absurd is corrected, how many students would not
be very happy to have votes and exams for no effort? The “Virtuous” Rector will
convince teachers to give up, and this parameter will be high. As in the
meantime the Minister is threatening the use of badges to "control"
the professors in their work, then the solution will be to use the badge in the
morning, and then go to a nice café, to drink the Italian world-famous good
coffee. This is how the
Italian University, the oldest in the world, despite all that talent together
still situated the eighth for the production of scientific papers of quality in
the world
[4], will reduce to offices of “walking zombies”.

Finally, regarding the parameters
related to the quality of research (which account for 2 / 3), a Rector today
can do very little, with the strangled budgets which in Italy in most
Universities account for nearly (or over) the 100% of their permanent funding.
A previous definition of “Virtuous” was indeed based on this percentage, which
however is uncontrollable since the cost of each Professor varies
significantly, not because of his negotiations with the Universities, but
purely on his age. Hence, with the simultaneous chaos on the “concorsi” (the
never solved problem of hiring system, which saw many “recipes” changing, but
resulted in the last 40 years inevitably in real “tsunami” of hiring and
non-hiring, and which is another uncontrollable process today and in years to
come, where one of the oldest population of academics will retire. Prospects
for new hires or transfers are modest, and are in contrast with many other
requests, and the lack of funds.  The
most virtuous of the universities this year,
Trento, gets only
Eu6 million more: crumbs. A "Virtuous" Rector will not waste too much


[1] Irene Tinagli, “Talento da svendere”,
Einaudi, 2008.

[2] However, Istat suggests that those
who have a degree will be employed at 10% higher probability than with high
school diploma only (78% vs 67%).

[3] Lo
splendido isolamento dell’università italiana Stefano Gagliarducci, Andrea
Ichino, Giovanni Peri, Roberto Perotti, febbraio 2005,

[4] SCImago. (2007). SJR — SCImago
Journal & Country Rank. Retrieved
May 04, 2008,


Michele Ciavarella, Politecnico di BARI - Italy, Rector's delegate.

Alan R. S. Ponter's picture

Despite knowing the criteria used you still believe that the opinion of a few individuals have an influence on individual Universities. This implies the system may not be as transparent as it should be as, politically, such considerations should not arise.If the UK Universities have any advantage in the present troubled times, it is that our system of funding allocation is well understood. There is a basis for constructive discussion about principles without having to involve issues of individuals. If anything, one of the problems in the UK system is that Ministers for Higher Education come and go at an alarming rate. But government generally regards UK Higher Education as something of a success story as it has proven to be adaptable and robust. The National Health Service is quite enough for them to worry about.

I rather disparagingly referred to the issues we are currently discussing as the worries of the middle-aged. If you are an academic you just have to accept that life is not necessarily fair. Sometimes things go your way and sometimes they don't. You can rail against the incompetence of government, rectors or heads of department ,but, at the end of the day, you can protest but you then just have to put up with it and go down to the lecture theatre, the laboratory or the research group office and get on with the job - where the real action lies. Whether you University is in the top ten in the world or lies around the 500 mark in 20 years time will depend as much, if not more, on your conversations with your research student tomorrow as anything else. That was what my polemic was about.

No, I was not disparaging Italian Universities. Looking at your list of Universities with the largest reduction in funding I am quite dismayed to see the University of Palermo at the bottom. In my own field they have been energetic, imaginative and highly professional. Of those really good young academics from Italy that I mention, some of them have been from Palermo.Yes, you have inherent difficulties. The allocation of resources for new posts is bazaar. The independence of UK universities allows us to have rolling programs of staff recruitment that allows long term planning. You examination system is unique and I've always rather admired it although it is time consuming. Student/staff discussion at critical points is vital for both student and staff. I once sat in on such exams at Milan Polytechnic and was very impressed. We have a strong tutorial system which perhaps compensates for the rather formal examination system and visiting Erasmus students like our informal open door attitude to students. As I said I have the impression that our subject attracts good students in Italy and they are well taught. The question was: why am I not conscious of Italian names amongst those associated with major developments in my subject, or am I out of date? I want you to tell me I'm mistaken.

I remember you inviting me to one of your national conferences, held in Sardinia. The date is fixed in my mind as it was a day after 9/11. My impression was the following. The standard was high, particularly papers about projects with a strong industrial input or a pan-European element. There was an air of studious professionalism. Contributors knew their stuff and how to present it. There were a larger number of female contributors than you would find in the UK. Much of it was highly professional work carried out within known, often advanced, techniques. You were all pleased to see each other and the atmosphere was very pleasant. I remember a highly entertaining discussion on the quality of pasta during the conference dinner. But if I looked for highly original work it was harder to find. There was a really impressive talk about the design of artificial heart valves with difficult modelling problems but this was carried out in co-operation with a UK university, whose main expertise was ductile fracture mechanics. This is probably how you are seen by your government - as a vital part of the education - industrial complex and you do that well. Government never says to you - "go out and do something startlingly new which will make you all famous in 20 years time". But it is innovation which puts you up the world ranking. There is more than one interpretation of a "virtuous" university. Trying to work out what a transitory government minister means by it may be a waste of time.

As Jose rightly says, the English language is an enormous advantage to the UK. In our subject and mathematics, many, if not most, of our graduates have gone into the service industry during the last 20 years to the higher salaries in the City of London, the insurance and banking industries. That tendancy has dramatically reversed in recent times.

We have kept going in engineering by the ability to recruit overseas students at full cost fees where the actual cost is the marginal cost. The staff at Leicester includes people from Italy, Brazil, Spain and several from China. In mathematics, student numbers have traditionally been fairly constant although the subject has attracted increasing numbers of female students. But the staff have come from all over the world. To some extent this has always been a factor. As an undergraduate understanding the accents of our Maths lecturers was sometimes as difficult as understanding the material itself. But in recent years Maths departments in the UK have recruited particularly well from Russia and Germany. The Maths Department at Bath University, one of the strongest in the country, has a significant proportion of German academics and at Leicester it's Russian. This gives us a flexibility which you lack for reasons of language.

We live in difficult times where much can be lost but some of the best work in our subject has been done in the most disadvantaged conditions. Think of  Poland during the the post war period. We don't have real problems.

Mike Ciavarella's picture

Dear David D Dill,

     I have seen you have a number of
interesting papers on comparing university rankings, and also on the
issue whether "market competition" can improve academic question (see
the link below).  The question is now how in italy, and I am discussing
this within my groups, which you see in CC.  I do not have access to all
PDF of your papers, unfortunately.  There is a proposal of the
government which apparently looks like "liberalization" in the spirit of
the Monti government .. but in Italy this will most likely result in
tax increase of students (which are in proportion high as in US) made
also by two economists (Andrea Ichino e Daniele Terlizzese....), whereas
the entire idea of "privatizing" universities comes from other
Economists from Bocconi University (where Monti is also honorary
president), such as Francesco Giavazzi, and Alberto Alesina who is in

However, all this question is badly posed in Italy, as these authors
fail or make it look like "privatization" of Universities would be
good.  As you recognize in your paper, I see that this mostly hides
ideas to make more profit, and less students . Also, it fails to
recognize that US universities have large endowments from private donors
(each large university in US has endowment larger than the TOTAL state
spending in Italy of 7 billions).  You can find some of this discussion,
at the Harvard blog

people in the CC are a group of about 200 Humboldtians, and a group of
"non virtuous", people in Universities which the governments says are
non virtuous i.e. they are poor!   These people are further
discriminated in recruitment. This includes my University Politecnico di
BARI, which according to SCIMAGO is the best public university in
Italy, but according to government funding, is "non virtuous", and will
get more and more cuts.

I wonder if you could help us a little

1) sending PDF of your papers
2) partecipating on this discussion here and in the google groups
3) even much better, discussing on imechanica
help me or point me to a paper about comparing ranking of academias,
since I find that the italian funding in Italy is allocated in a very
strange fashion, and would like to demonstrate this more rigoroulsy.  I
have the excel files for Italian Universities funding, so if you have
excel files for their positions in the different rankings, it would be
easy to find a correlation.  And maybe even write an interesting paper!

Thanks in advance.
Michele Ciavarella

Quality Assurance In Higher Education

Higher Education Dynamics, 2007, Volume 20, Part I, 47-72, DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4020-6012-0_2

Will Market Competition Assure Academic Quality? An Analysis of the UK and US Experience

David Dill


A major change that has accompanied the worldwide
‘massification’ of higher education is the new-found openness of policy
makers to the use of competitive markets to steer the
university sector. In many countries efforts to improve the quality
of publicly provided higher education, both in teaching and in
research, are leading to experiments with market-based policy
instruments (Teixeira et al. 2004). The perceived quality of
universities in the competitive US system – which Trow (2000)
has termed the ‘American advantage’ – has inspired much of this
interest in market forces. While a number of these market
experiments may also be motivated by a desire to restrict
public expenditures in rapidly expanding systems of higher education,
many policy makers and academics believe that there is a
relationship between the degree of market competition and academic
quality (Dill 2005).


Michele Ciavarella, Politecnico di BARI - Italy, Rector's delegate.

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