Knickers in a twist: Americano in China (2/2)

Tuesday 25 September 2012, 12.57pm HKT

The idioms of reality (cont.)

Cost realities (cont.)


Now for something completely different, let’s look at Italy.

via Italy Travels Guide

Since 99% of English speakers know nothing about Italy (other than the names of the usual Italian dishes), I’ll give you a quick rundown of getting an Italian degree to compare against a China degree.

Whereas British, American and Chinese universities operate roughly identically in terms of course pathways and awards (lower/upper secondary, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorates), the Italian system is totally different.

Italy runs a unified and unitary education system. People go through 12 years of schooling and get one diploma at the end. Elementary and secondary education is described as such only for convenience; the entire ‘bloc’ is ‘schooling’ (‘istruzione’).

In the UK, kids get several different secondary school exam certificates for several different subject passes at GCE (now GCSE) O- and A-levels. In the USA, kids get umpteen different ‘graduation’ certificates for different years and whatnot, so I’ve been told.

via Unibo

Italian higher education works in ‘cycles’:—

the First Cycle corresponds to undergraduate studies in English-speaking countries

the Second Cycle is split into two levels: the ‘first level’ is sort of ‘post-undergraduate’ and more professionally geared, and the ‘second level’ more property corresponds to the master’s level in the English-speaking world

the Third Cycle corresponds to doctorate and post-doctorate levels

The University of Bologna (‘Unibo’) is the pre-eminent body that sets the entire tone of Italian post-secondary education nationwide. Founded in 1088 (or 1158, depending on which history you accept), Bologna was the first university to offer ‘natural magic’ (experimental science) in the 15th or 16th century. Student population is around 80,000, but it’s actually nearer to 150,000 (if you count part-timers and whatnot). World academic ranking is No. 201 to No. 300 (about the same as Brandeis University in the USA or University of Newcastle in the UK) but higher in sciences at No. 101 or 150 (like the University of California, Riverside, or University of Leicester).

Unibo alumni include the jurist Gratian and the Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem (12th century), Dante Alighieri (14th century), Nicolaus Copernicus and Albrecht Dürer (15th century), Paracelsus (16th century), Marcello Malpighi (17th century) and Guglielmo Marconi (20th century), among others. If you ever go there, you’re with that illustrious lot.

Tuition fees

Italians live by the adage “Se il prezzo è un crimine, non sprecare il mio tempo” (“If the price is a crime, don’t waste my time”).

Italian universities are rather upfront about fees. In almost every Italian university website I’ve seen, fee information is practically top of the page in the course catalogue. Same with the printed prospectus. Every course unit shows exactly the duration, level, cycle and price.

By contrast, every bleedin’ British, American, Chinese and any other country’s university tries to hide fee information. British and American university websites almost never contain fee details. You end up writing (or ringing up) for fee details — and get told off for making too many enquiries.

Italian university fees operate on five different fee bands and two grant-loan schemes for local and EU students, and one fee structure for overseas students. Within those structures, the fees are the same regardless of subject discipline. Fees are set by presidential decree, so that’s virtually the same everywhere.

Italian and EU citizens

  • First cycle (bachelor’s) degrees €1,690 p.a. (no exemption) or €157 p.a. (full exemption)
  • Second cycle (master’s) degrees €3,143 p.a. (no exemption) or €157 p.a. (full exemption)
  • Single cycle degrees €3,983 p.a. (no exemption) or €157 p.a. (full exemption)

All overseas (non-EU) citizens

  • All programmes €5,558 p.a. (US$7,200) (standard) with variable exemptions

Some specific programmes have much higher fees — no worries, all fees are shown in the enrolment paperwork.

The only real difficulty for the overseas student is the fee information is invariably entirely in Italian. The universities do this deliberately — to test the prospective student actually knows enough Italian to figure all this stuff out. If your Italian is good enough to handle Italian money matters, you’re good to go for the classroom stuff.

Fee exemptions

All students regardless of EU or non-EU citizenship are allowed some form of fee exemption. The higher your academic scores, the more exemptions you can apply for. Application deadline for this since prehistoric times has been 12 May (or the workday before it) — fixed date is srsly the only workable way of doing things.

Fee payment

Italians (like the Jews, Armenians and Chinese) know the true value of money and are careful about it. Each year’s fees are payable in one lump sum or in three instalments. (Overseas students must pay the first year’s in one lump sum.) The university authorities charge a flat €4 handling fee for instalments (vs. goddamn £25 to £50 in the UK). After the first year of studies, you are automatically given the option to pay by instalments — you must not miss the payment deadline dates or you’d be deregistered and have to start back from square one.

Entrance requirements

Italian universities are generally a little less upfront about entrance requirements, mainly because many other countries don’t have a unitary education system like Italy has.

And they’re a bit inflexible about this: you need to have at least 12 years of schooling (primary plus secondary). Any less, and you’ll need to show them all your school certs (academic or otherwise) and likely be required to sit an entrance exam (free). Italians don’t want to work the paperwork only to find your damn qualifications are inadequate. Other than that, Italian universities are pretty relaxed about what type of schooling you’ve had.

Every overseas student must have the proper visa, police registration on arrival (arranged by the student affairs office) and your home country’s police certificate of no criminal record. Italians are sick and tired of foreign immigrants making a monkey’s mess of their glorious, historically historic country, and hate and detest foreigners who don’t follow Italian rules and treat La Repubblica Italiana like a piccolo albergo (small hotel).

Italian language

If you don’t know Italian, you can’t get in. Simple as that. All overseas students must show documentary evidence of knowledge of Italian. Even with that, all overseas students must sit the compulsory Italian language test (free). All things being equal, if your Italian isn’t up to par, you’ll be required to take Italian-language classes (free) for one term out of each academic year. Italian universities are mafia badass serious in this department: you fail those Italian-language classes, you’re out of the university entirely!


The Unibo website is absolutely adorable with its funny brand of English. On the registrations webpage, for instance, it has a link named “Discover which international student category you belong to” — which gets straight to the point. And totally effs up the English grammar nazi (oh, sorry, ‘grammatica inglese fascista’). Most Italian university websites have a helluva easier organisation and functionality than most British, American and Chinese websites. Then again, I have Italians as godparents.

Bologna, like other Italian universities, offer these degrees:—

Laurea (or Laurea triennale) (L)
First-cycle degree, equivalent to bachelor’s degree. Completion 3 years full time, 20 exams, minimum 180 total credits. Formal academic title is ‘dottore’ but no one uses it outside of academia. A modernised, highly simplified version of the 6-year-long pre-reform Laurea.

Master Universitario di Primo Livello (MUPL)
Second-cycle degree at first level. Sort of a post-bachelor’s or junior master’s degree. Doesn’t match the normal master’s degree of English-speaking countries. A specialist course that provides for more practical education but don’t give access to Third Cycle programmes. Completion usually 1 year full time, 120 credits. Useful for economic sectors that are non-regulated but require specialised qualifications (e.g. MIEX Master in International Management).

Laurea Magistrale (LM), Laurea Specialistica (LS)
Second-cycle degree at second level. More closely corresponds to the normal master’s degree. Completion 2 years full time, 120 total credits. Access to Third Cycle programmes. Formal academic title is ‘dottore magistrale.’ Holders conventionally addressed as ‘dottore’ or ‘dottoressa.’

Laurea Quadriennale (LQ)
A 4-year second-cycle degree at second level.

Other second-cycle, second-level qualifications
Diploma accademico di secondo livello
Diploma accademico di specializzazione (I)
Corso di perfezionamento o Master (I)

Laurea Magistrale a Ciclo Unico (LMCU)
The “Single Cycle” degree sometimes called Laurea Magistrale Quinquennale. A combined bachelor’s–master’s degree of second cycle, for professional practice in a regulated profession (law, medicine/surgery, dentistry, veterinary medicine, pharmacy, pharmacology, architecture, construction engineering, and primary education). Completion 5 or 6 years full time, 30–36 exams, 300–360 total credits. Formal academic title is ‘dottore/dottoressa magistrale.’

Dottorato di ricerca (Dott. Ric.)
Third-cycle research doctorate degree. Completion time 3 or more years. No stated credits. Corresponds to Ph.D. ‘Ricerca’ is pronounced ‘ree-cher-kah.’

Other third-cycle qualifications
Diploma di specializzazione
Master universitario di secondo livello
Diploma accademico di formazione alla ricerca
Diploma accademico di specializzazione (II)
Corso di perfezionamento o Master (II)

Realities of studying in Italy

Nine months ago, the Italian deputy welfare minister came under fire for his remarks that students in Italy who drag out their university studies for years “are losers” (The Daily Telegraph, 25 Jan 2012).

Well, overseas students dragging out their studies don’t happen in Italy. Either the authorities don’t let that happen, or the cost of living just keeps going up. In Italy, you can’t work on a student visa. Simple as that.

Realities of living in Italy

In Italy, any non-Italian (even an Italian-American) is an outsider. Italians are fearful of “those who are outsiders who work for The Outside” (“stranieri che lavorano per L’Esterno”). The moment you step off the nice Alitalia plane with your nice Italian student visa, you should behave like a nice, level-headed, rational Italian sympathiser. You might be a raving socialist/neo-nazi loony in your own country, but here in Italy your comportment should be that of an easygoing, extreme democratic centrist Italian fascist.

Learn to drink wine. You eat nothing but Italian food, not bloody cheeseburgers. You learn to enjoy strong-flavoured food with strong-flavoured drink: Italians are descendants of gods and are no wimps. You don’t serve beer to guests. You always have two bottles of mineral water at home for impromptu visitors (one chilled, one at room temperature). You definitely don’t drink English tea polluted with milk (or, even worse, condensed milk). Your Szechuan hotpot means dick in Italy because Italians don’t cook their meals at the dining table.

And Chinese food in China is no damn way better than Italian food in Italy. Punto (period).

You should dress well all the time. In Italy, the maxim is that the moment to step out the front door, that is your public life. Foreign women (even if Italian-born) are expected to wear jewellery and understated makeup all the time. Foreign men are expected to be clean-cut and well turned out all the time. No flipflops or trunks in Italy, grazie mille.

You praise educated Italians as being “rational and disciplined” and the less educated as “pragmatic and sensible in knowing the simplicities of a good life.”

All the rest of the stuff about cost of living, getting around, etc, just becomes peanuts and insignificant compared with the foregoing cultural literacy.

Everything is completely different from what you’re used to
via Food Sovereignty Tours

Ultimate money muscle ranking

For the subject of International Relations, the money muscle rankings are:

  • China undergraduate degree US$6,700 p.a. x 4 years = US$26,800
  • UK undergraduate degree US$21,000 p.a. x 3 years = US$63,000
  • Italian undergraduate degree US$7,212 p.a. x 3 years = US$21,636

Just bean-counting the numbers, a China degree makes financial sense. It’s “much less than” a UK degree. The Chinese university will admit you even when your Chinese is wobbly; the Italian one won’t. In China (as it is in the USA), anything beyond the core course (such as supplementary language classes) you pay extra. In Italy, you get some free supplements and some you’re expected to ‘contribute’ partially and/or proportionally.

But you can win the battle but lose the war: your China degree might not have the eventual earning power the UK or Italian degree is likely to have.

More seriously, the culture of having personal connections (what the Italians call ‘raccomandazione’ — or ‘guanxi’ 關係 by the Chinese) that unlocks job opportunities is increasingly needed throughout Europe as the worldwide financial crisis deepens and this connection culture is stifling the educated classes. A series of big stories from the Associated Press highlights the problems faced by top graduates from top universities around the world. In other words, the world is not “turning Japanese” (as the 1980 song by The Vapors has it) but “turning Chinese” in the sense that things are pivoting more on personal connections than straight academic qualifications.


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3 Responses to “Knickers in a twist: Americano in China (2/2)”

  1. Ed Hurst said

    And while we’re at it, how about universities in Russia? Serbia? Mongolia? Never mind. I turned down an invitation for a masters fellowship in History. Not where I wanted to spend the rest of my life.


  2. Ed Hurst said

    Of course; I chose them for that reason. There is more than one kind of cost, as you note. I rather liked your survey.


Comments are closed.

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