Are Italian Universities Ready For Academic Year 2020-21?

Fears and controversies make a smooth return to university uncertain.

Italian Universities
Students during a university lecture. Photo: Shubham Sharan, Unsplash.

In contrast to Italian schools, universities in Italy have opened their doors to students for academic year 2020-21 with hardly a murmur in the media. No news is good news, so they say, but following the hotly debated issues surrounding the implications of online teaching at universities during the lockdown period, fears over student numbers for the new academic year, the question of whether international students will be able to come and the rather last-minute controversies around admissions tests, are Italian universities really ready for academic year 2020-21?

Accusations of foul play and student protests have hampered a smooth start to the academic year

Things did get off to a somewhat ominous start with university admissions tests in early September when student hopefuls in quarantine risked losing their spot, since they were required to go along in person to do the test. This alongside accusations of foul play and meddling with the question papers, plus protests by students waiting outside Roma Sapienza to take the Medicina university admissions test, caused many to wonder if universities had been rather too optimistic in prioritizing the in-person university experience. The student protesters were objecting to the Italian government policy of setting a cap on student numbers for Medicine. An argument pertinent to the times, since severe shortages in medical staff were exposed at the height of Covid cases between February and May 2020. Needless to say, Italian University minister Gaetano Manfredi granted an extra 2,000 places this year in an almost 17% rise from 11,500 to 13,500 and an effort to alleviate the problem.

Covid has presented universities with difficulties but also opportunities to improve the student experience

Among students who do have university places and who experienced the ups and downs of academic year 2019-20, Russian opera pianist Victoria Khalilova, a second-year student at Conservatorio Statale di Musica Fausto Torrefranca in Vibo Valentia, Calabria, has mixed feelings about starting the year and the rather tragicomedy air of the whole situation. Currently in Russia, and waiting for information so she can safely make the trip back to Italy to start the academic year, Victoria says that despite their best efforts her fellow music students and the professors at the Conservatorio weren’t able to pull off the lessons easily back in March.

Access to stable wifi networks was an issue for some, others relied solely on their smartphones; some which overheated due to long periods using the wifi and having to have lots of apps open simultaneously. A lack of computer capabilities for the odd one or two also limited the effectiveness of online lessons, other students stepped out due to ethical reasons and practical music lessons and exams that required students to play their instruments were wrought with challenges caused by small living spaces with poor acoustics and the fact that some instruments such as the marimba or xylophone are simply too big to fit into many people’s homes.

Victoria didn’t have a piano at home in Italy and a request to rent one from a local music store amounted to nothing. However, despite reservations about online lessons, Victoria remains positive that the Conservatiorio is rising to the challenge of creating a safe environment for students. Her friends will be able to finish their exams and be able to return to doing lessons in person with distancing measures in place; much more appropriate for generating the complex emotions and energy through music that comes with the live performance. She also points out that “…the Covid [measures] can bring us more order so the university can function faster.” Therefore, if the decision to process documents online sticks, and this gets things moving more quickly, it can only be a good thing for a country that is infamous for its burdensome bureaucratic processes.

Students may now get a better deal with classroom teaching

At Università di Torino, there is also the same impression that, as a result of Covid, the bureaucratic systems and procedures put in place to ensure everyone’s safety are an acceptable alternative to business as usual. Kate Merret, an English instructor for students within the Scuola di Scienze della Natura at Università di Torino says “I can already say that my school’s measures make me, as an instructor, feel safe.”

Needless to say, many of her lessons in the departments will still be online for the first semester and any worries or concerns she has, are from a teaching perspective “young people today are used to slick professional-looking computer games and websites. Will they be able to see beyond, the maybe amateur-looking packaging and appreciate the quality of the content?” Aside from this, students will be getting a better deal due to social distancing requirements in the Chemistry Department since professors will be putting on more practical laboratory sessions for smaller groups of students. As Kate points out “this is probably better quality for students as there is more individual attention from the chemistry lecturer.”

Everyone is doing their best to get back to normal safely

Some students do feel that the time has come to get back to the classroom albeit it safely. Anna, a Master’s student in Cultural Management at Università Ca’ Foscari in Venice spent the months during lockdown in her rented student apartment in Mestre and says “I’m not really into online learning. There was an elective I was interested in signing up for earlier this month but I decided not to do it because I was looking forward to going back into class and I found out it was going to be online. I miss the classroom.” But she has no complaints about how the university handled the last six months of uncertainty. “At my university the communication has always been really clear. They’ve done everything they could.” For 2020-21, Ca’ Foscari has a booking system which is on a first come, first served basis so 50% of the students can do their lessons in-person while the others tune in online. Despite this, Anna says that most of her circle of friends still haven’t returned to Venice but Anna says “you can’t stay indoors all the time. Everyone here is really careful and respectful of others, including on public transport.”

The signs look good so far but questions remain

So far universities in Italy seem to be pretty well organized and equipped to start the new academic year despite some bumps at the start. Current students and staff are generally happy with the solutions that have been worked out. Some of the information might have been slow in being communicated while other universities were more effective in keeping channels of communication open so it seems that they’re all doing their best with the information they have.

On the bright side, according to a recent article in the Financial Times ‘Italy’s Harsh Lessons to Keep a Second Wave at Bay’, Italy is said to be faring somewhat better than other countries in its response to Covid-19 and is currently avoiding the second wave that is emerging in other countries such as the UK, France and Spain. Schools opened their doors on September 14 and university students are also starting their return so only time will tell if we all feel quite so confident in the systems Italian universities have put in place once we are well into the first semester. And the question of student numbers remains unclear for now.

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