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The worst students, the best universities December 4, 2007

Posted by dorigo in mathematics, news, physics, science.

A flaming title, but let me explain. Italy was recently placed at the 35th place in a ranking of countries by the level of scientific knowledge of high school students. A list led by Finland, with several eastern countries figuring very well, and Italy scoring quite unlike other european countries. Disappointing, to use an euphemism.

On the other hand, today I read very conforting news, only at first sight in contradiction with the former datum: as far scientific studies are concerned, italian universities figure very high in a ranking of excellence compiled by the Centrefor Higher Education Development (CHE) in Gutersloh. In mathematics,  the University of Rome-“Tor Vergata” is among the institutes “of excellence”, a very short list. Even better is the ranking of Physics institutes: here, among 24 chosen in the study, four are italian: and among them, of course, Padova (with Firenze, Pisa, and Rome-“La Sapienza”).

The parameters which were used to rank institutes were the number of scientific publications in the period 1997-2004, the number of citations, the presence of researchers among the most cited in Europe, and the use of European funds from the “Marie Curie” program, a program to favor the mobility of researchers. Apparently, my presence in Padova did not affect negatively the outcome 😉



1. Andrea Giammanco - December 4, 2007

Probably the answer is very similar to the answer to the question: “how is it possible that in most statistical health indicators the USA rank worse than most of the other western countries and at the same level of some poor country, given that most of the best hospitals and medical facilities are american?”
This means that the system doesn’t care for increasing the mean level, or for avoiding that the worst remains so behind, and just cares for the jewels of the crown.
This is bad, and wrong, and does very little good for the society.

2. Guess Who - December 4, 2007

I don’t think too much should be made of the science ranking of Italian high school students, it probably reflcts a cultural preference for the humanities due to the country’s special historical heritage. I seem to remember that the best & brightest high school students tend to follow a “classic” study program involving, among other useful stuff, classic Greek and Latin, but not so much math. So I guess they enter their physics freshman year at Italian universities knowing almost as little relevant material as do their US counerparts… 😉

3. Andrea Giammanco - December 4, 2007

I confirm.
I was a student in one of those humanities-oriented schools (although even the “scientific” high school is incredibly biased towards humanities) and I still regret it.
I’m sure that Tommaso will have a different opinion from mine: most italians still believe that studying greek is something good 😉

(I liked greek, and also latin, and I had good marks in both. Simply, I think that trading it with more math would have done some good to me, and would do much good to society.)

4. dorigo - December 4, 2007

Yes, I think you are right. Bright italian students are steered toward human sciences. However, I do think there is some kind of a gap, because the mediocre instruction at high school level builds a lag with respect to other countries where teachings are more science-oriented.
In Italy, there also is another factor, the a-scientific thinking related to religion and superstition, which are both strongly by tradition.

Overall I am with GW in saying the level of a freshman undergrad in US and Italy is more or less equivalent. Which is nagging.

5. Filippo - December 7, 2007

I was a student of humanities in high school, then graduated in Physics (and worked in software industry ever since 😦 ). I really do not regret this course of study: I still enjoy a lot my background, while I didn’t feel too handicapped when at University.
The real trouble is when it comes to people who study humanities in High School and University. In Italy, those people will know nothing about Science, and will be permanent illiterates. These are a lot, and they heavily affect Italy’s capabilty (or incapability) to steer towards modernity… sometime.

6. Amara - December 8, 2007

The Italian students are being prepared very poorly for tomorrow’s technical world. We, who know Italy, all know that, but here, if one selects a slice of 15 year olds in different parts of the world, one has firm evidence. One could learn from this, something about what works and does not work in preparing our young people:

PISA 2006 Science Competencies for Tomorrow’s World


7. dorigo - December 8, 2007

Hi Filippo,
that is right, in general high school do little for the scientific background, and a big chunk of the population is left with no clue.

Amara, yes, what you cite was the basis of my post. Thanks for the link,


8. Amara - December 11, 2007

Sorry, about that.. I was focussed on the second part of your post. That link I provided gives an impressive amount of data for anyone who wants to play with it. I didn’t, yet, but The Economist (Dec 8 issue), made a nice overview and analysis. Of the things that work, they write that the most important factor is hiring high-quality teachers, then letting schools run themselves, giving school principals the power to control budgets, setting incentives and decide whom to hire and how much to pay them seems to boost a country’s position. Publishing school results helps too.

This survey introduced a new feature of looking at differences between schools in a country and how they affect performances. Top performing schools had very little (or no) differences between the schools.

To ensure that budding scientists blossom, The Economist writes that one must: give the students teachers with excellent qualifications in science, spend plenty of time on the subject, and engage their enthusiasm with after school clubs, events and competitions. All commonsense, I think, but the data and analysis gave a good confirmation of those simple points.

9. dorigo - December 11, 2007

Yes, I think it is not such rocket science to get performant schools. The problem is always financiary: low salaries do not stimulate excellence. Principals have to make draconian choices, libraries are left to rot, and activities and competition are not paid to the teachers, who justly refuse to spend more time at work.


10. Amara - December 11, 2007

Dear Tommaso: Money is the first step, but the result of that survey and gist of that Economist article is that a financial solution will not generate scientifically literate young people; there is more that is needed. I would personally go so far to say that the ‘more’ that is needed is a population interested in science (which, in my opinion, doesn’t exist in Italy today).

11. dorigo - December 11, 2007

I have to agree. However, Italy is crippled by hosting the vatican. It is a huge handicap…


12. Amara - December 11, 2007

Yes, indeed!

13. Student - August 3, 2008

The University of Kassel in Germany is the worst possible university in the world, with extremely poor quality teachers and students. One of the professors there, Prof. Dr. Christoph Scherrer, sexually harassed a student and sent his racist students to insult her. When the harassed student tried to complain about him, he got her trapped in a legal dispute, lying about her, in order to keep his job. The student had to leave Germany, she was terrified. The Kassel University refused to take action against their sordid, horny professor. Shame on them!

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