Saturday, December 02, 2006

A presence

Reading about the Pope's trip to Turkey, one gets the impression of a man whose only strategy is to make himself available so that Christ can manifest himself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

“The Chronicle of Higher Education”

From the issue dated December 8, 2006


Government-driven changes have led to charges that the system is more dysfunctional than ever
A 49-year-old tax accountant might seem an unlikely poster child for national controversy. But as a law student at Rome's Guglielmo Marconi Online University, Lanfranco Fichera is a participant in two of the most hotly debated developments in Italian higher education today: experience credits and online universities.
Though he works full time and supervises a staff of nine, Mr. Fichera is on track to earn his bachelor's degree within the standard three years. He is willing and able to do this, he says, because the university shaved off nearly a year of course-work requirements thanks to his professional experience. And as an online student, he can squeeze hours of studying into his schedule each week without enduring a daily commute to campus. "I'm very comfortable with this," he says. "The arrangement is optimal for those of us who work."
Mr. Fichera's experience reflects some of the changes enacted by the Italian government over the last decade in an effort to increase access to higher education and raise the country's notoriously low graduation rates. Yet the net result, critics say, has been to make a weak system even weaker, undermining standards amid the pressures of an increasingly competitive higher-education marketplace.
It is the "needs of institutions and academic lobbies," rather than those of students or researchers, that govern the policies of Italian universities today, says Daniele Giordano, national coordinator of the Union of University Students. "We need a very different sort of university governance."
Government leaders agree. In recent months they have effectively acknowledged that a previous administration's reforms, which were intended to improve education while ensuring university autonomy, have undermined academic quality. They have promised to raise standards without compromising institutional autonomy.
College graduates are rarer in Italy than almost anywhere else in the developed world, with only 11 percent of the adult population holding bachelor's degrees. Socioeconomic factors go a long way to explain the anomaly: Though it is the world's seventh largest economy, Italy is dominated by small and medium-size manufacturing firms, often family-owned, which are less likely than large corporations and high-tech businesses to demand academic credentials from their employees.
Yet Italian universities' low output of graduates also reflects limitations of the institutions themselves. Long oriented to serving a well-prepared elite, the nation's universities, almost all of them state supported, opened their doors to students of all backgrounds in the last third of the 20th century, leading enrollments to rise from 456,000 in
1966 to 1,796,000 (out of a total population of 58 million) in 2006. But for many years, only a fraction of those entering the system actually prospered in it, as shown by a graduation rate of 18.1 percent in 2000.
Overcrowded classrooms and inadequate libraries have been among the widely decried causes for that failure, along with a sink-or-swim teaching method that allows little faculty-student contact and bases grades on a single oral examination at the end of each course.
Until recently, the obligation to write athesis also meant that the standard bachelor's degree, known as the laurea, actually amounted to the equivalent of an American bachelor's and master's combined, representing a higher level of academic achievement than many students may have deemed necessary or feasible.
Quickening the Pace
Shortening the path to degrees was a key goal behind a set of laws and ministerial decrees passed in 1999 by the center-left government in power at the time.
That reform replaced the existing degree system, in which most undergraduate programs lasted four years — although the average graduate actually took more than seven years to earn a degree — with a two-cycle system consisting of a three-year "foundational" laurea followed by an optional two-year "specialization" degree. (The format was chosen to conform with the common European degree standards envisioned in the 45-nation Bologna process, inaugurated the same year.)
The new system, put in place in 2001, has doubled the graduation rate, which rose to 36.8 percent in 2004. A study published in June found that 64.4 percent of those who began their studies under the new system were on schedule last year in their progress toward a degree, compared with only 13 percent for all bachelor's candidates in 2002.
But for many older students, the path to a bachelor's degree has grown even shorter than three years, for a reason that many educators find disturbing.
Another element of the 1999 reform explicitly provided for the granting of degree credit for professional and other nonacademic experience. Just how much credit students would receive for experience was supposed to be based on evaluations of individual résumés.
In practice, however, Italian universities have routinely waived a standard number of course requirements for students according to their occupations, on terms set forth in general agreements with their employers, labor unions, or professional associations.
Accountants, surveyors, and journalists are among the many professionals who have qualified for such credits, which have proved especially popular with civil servants and police officers, for whom the acquisition of a laurea typically means an automatic pay raise and promotion.
In May a popular investigative news program on national television raised a stir with an exposé of the practice, revealing, for example, that employees of the Interior Ministry could earn a bachelor's in political science in just one year, because they are exempt from the first two years of courses.
The most talked-about cases of experience credits have been those involving relatively new universities, yet the practice is common at even the most established institutions. Two years ago, the University of Siena, founded in 1240 and one of the oldest universities in Europe, offered high-ranking officers of Italy's military police a degree in judicial administration if they passed three courses and wrote a thesis.
Everyone's Doing It
"A general disaster," says Alessandra Briganti, rector of Guglielmo Marconi Online University, about the practice of granting automatic course credit for presumed experience. "If you know a subject, come and take the exam. If you don't, you don't deserve the credit."
Yet at Ms. Briganti's university, almost all of the approximately 7,000 students have received such experience credits. "If we didn't grant them, they wouldn't enroll," she explains, citing pressure from the competition.
After Marconi agreed to waive a year of courses for officers of Italy's tax police, she says, the university discovered that most of the policemen preferred to enroll at a much older brick-and-mortar institution nearby that offered them nearly twice as much credit.
Guido Trombetti, rector of the University of Naples "Federico II," and president of the Conference of Italian University Rectors, defends the concept of experience credits. He says they are "in the spirit of the reform," and insists that "excesses have not been widespread. ... The great majority of universities have acted with seriousness in this matter."
Nevertheless, four days after the television exposé was broadcast this spring, the education ministry instructed Italian universities to waive no more than one year of course requirements for a three-year laurea on the basis of nonacademic experience, and to grant any such credit on the basis of an individual evaluation and not automatically according to a student's occupation or professional affiliation.
If one third of a degree program still seems like a lot to waive, it might be unrealistic to expect the Italian government to chip away further. Italy's economic and political life is dominated by powerful interest groups, including labor unions and professional organizations. Over the last five years, those groups have come to think of degree credits for life experience as one of the perquisites of membership.
Recently an editorial in the national newspaper La Repubblica, which generally supports the center-left government, suggested that "caution" on the matter shown by Fabio Mussi, the minister of higher education, might be "inspired by the advisability of not displeasing the unions too much."
A Building Boom
While the internal deficiencies of Italian universities have frustrated many a student on the path to a degree, an even more obvious obstacle has been the physical inaccessibility of the institutions themselves.
Though far more urban than it was before the industrialization that followed World War II, Italy remains largely a country of small towns and medium-size cities. Yet even a decade ago, most of its universities were concentrated in major population centers, with scarce funds and student housing, which discouraged enrollment by people from remote areas.
In recent years, the number of universities in Italy has grown sharply, from 66 in 1996 to 93 today. The southern region of Calabria, a largely rural area with a population of two million, now boasts no fewer than four universities, not including a small private institution whose accreditation the education ministry rescinded last May, following news reports that it was holding its rare classes in a seaside luxury hotel.
This expansion can be seen at least in part as an entrepreneurial response to rising demand for the new, shorter laurea. In the first two years of the new degree system, first-time university enrollments in Italy rose by 6.6 percent. Apart from the new institutions, previously existing universities across the country have sprouted dozens of satellite campuses, thanks to a provision of the 1999 reforms that facilitated their establishment.
The university boom has raised concerns at the highest levels. Last September, Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano, a largely ceremonial figure who traditionally avoids intervening in politics or policy, spoke out about the "proliferation of university campuses in Italy," saying that he thought it was "something worrying, to be examined carefully."
A few days later, Mr. Mussi denounced the nation's higher-education governance system, which he had inherited from a center-right government the previous May, as a "big bordello," in part for its lax standards on the establishment of new programs and institutions.
According to Mr. Giordano, of the Union of University Students, the spread of satellite campuses has diluted the resources of existing universities, which took advantage of their increased autonomy to set up operations that they lacked the personnel and funds to run properly.
The government evidently shares that concern, and the proposed 2007 budget now before parliament includes a provision that would block further expansion of universities beyond the municipalities where they are legally incorporated. Even Mr. Trombetti, speaking on behalf of his fellow rectors, acknowledges that satellite campuses have spread in a "disorderly fashion." He says that a large factor in the trend has been the eagerness of local governments to attract universities by offering them real estate.
Among the most controversial new universities are the nation's 11 online (or "telematic") institutions, more than in any other European Union country, all approved by the previous center-right government.
Although some traditional universities had offered online programs, exclusively online institutions were permitted only after 2003. One of them recently made the news for its apparent financial links to a commercial tutoring school, an arrangement that has raised potential conflicts of interest, since it would presumably give the university an incentive to make it easier for the tutoring school's clients to earn degrees.
"The criteria used for approving the telematic universities was exclusively technological and not academic," says Luciano Modica, under secretary of education with responsibility for universities, explaining that the government has blocked the approval process for online institutions (with eight applications pending) until it develops satisfactory standards, and that it also plans to re-evaluate those already approved.
For the Conference of Italian University Rectors, which backs that move, a legitimate university faculty is one that not only teaches but produces original research. Mr. Modica agrees, though he makes allowance for the virtual character of online universities by noting that instructors need not conduct their research within the context of any particular institution.
The Value of Competition
Ms. Briganti, of Marconi, says that her institution's instructors, many of whom also teach at brick-and-mortar universities, have produced original research in various fields including engineering, and that she welcomes an evaluation by the government. She also affirms Italy's need for institutions such as hers to serve older students who work full time. Such students make up almost all of Marconi's student body, which has an average age of about 40.
Mr. Fichera, the tax accountant, started his studies two years ago at the University of Camerino, 130 miles from Rome, which granted him nearly a year's worth of experience credits through an agreement with his professional association, but the inconvenience of commuting to classes there led him to transfer to Marconi.
Although he has met his online instructors in person only at the required oral exams (all of which must be taken at the university's headquarters), Mr. Fichera says he has found the teaching and administrative staff at Marconi much more accessible than the personnel at Camerino. By studying several hours a week on evenings and weekends, then cramming for three full days before exams, he says has been able to complete a typical six-credit course in a month and a half.
The law degree he is studying for will have no professional benefit as a credential, since his diploma from a vocational high school already qualifies him to practice his profession. But Mr. Fichera says the knowledge he is acquiring has already paid off in his handling of the legal aspects of his job.
"I'm all in favor of tighter controls," Mr. Fichera says of the government's increased scrutiny of online universities. "But they shouldn't try to block this phenomenon like this. It's very important for people like me."
Mr. Giordano, the student leader, supports the government's efforts to tighten academic standards, but doubts that its actions will yield many benefits without an in-depth evaluation and major overhaul of the higher education system. The 1999 reform made quality much harder to ensure by handing the universities an excessive degree of autonomy, he says, and opened the door to the lowest form of competition.
The student leader notes a growing trend to market higher education like a consumer good, citing one university whose advertisements liken the variety of its offerings to different kinds of mineral water.
Under Secretary Modica, while promising that his government will undertake a wide-ranging investigation of Italian higher education, firmly disagrees with one part of Mr. Giordano's analysis, and insists that the universities' freedom to run themselves is actually an indispensable condition for excellence. "Autonomy is necessary for competition," he says. "We know that well-regulated competition raises the level of quality rather then bringing it down."
Section: International
Volume 53, Issue 16, Page A39