Interview with professor Stefano Bianchini (University of Bologna)

 

Can you please tell about your occupation in the University of Bologna and about the topics which are in a focus of your professional interest?

-      I’m a Professor of East European Politics and History at the School of Political Science, Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Bologna, Forlì Campus. I’m teaching mainly history of foreign policy of Russia/Soviet Union and state-building and nationalism in Eastern Europe. This is more like introductory course for a Master degree program in English that we have together with Saint-Petersburg State University. My personal research interests focus on the Balkans. I’ve studied for a long time Yugoslavia and the collapse of the country. I’ve been also an adviser and expert-witness the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia). And I’m also following foreign policy of Russia (Soviet Union - before, Russia - today) and taking part in framework in leading research project of our department on the relationships between Russia and China. Colleagues from SPbU are also involved in this project. In addition to that, I’m rector’s delegate for relations with East European countries.

 

-      Why the University of Bologna is interested in cooperation with Saint-Petersburg University?

-      Well, I have to say that you’re the first University that we established relations with. One of the reasons is that both of our Universities are the most ancient Universities - Bologna of Europe and Saint-Petersburg State University of Russia. This is a one good reason for cooperation. But also because in nineties your rector prof. Ludmila Verbitskaya came to visit us with all the deans and pro-rectors and during that meeting we have established excellent relations for different programs - teaching and research. Also we established a framework agreement on a base of which we guarantee the mobility of students and staff.

 

-      What are the main directions of this cooperation? And in which sphere you think this mutual work is developing in the most productive way?

-      I would say that in this moment the greater cooperation is based on the program «MIREES». It’s a Master’s in studies on Eastern Europe, which awards a joint diploma. So, this is a very peculiar way, because according to the standards that have been agreed by all the countries including Russia within the European High Education Area, joint diplomas are the highest level of integration. Since 2004 we have develop our cooperation with the School of International Relations within this program and have students enrolled in this program. We also have professors from Saint-Petersburg State University who are regularly coming to teach to Forlì and students, who’re coming here during their second year of studies. We have an agreement according to which  we’re sending approximately 10 students every year in Saint-Petersburg. In addition to that, there’s also a special agreement on mobility that allows students from Saint-Petersburg State University to study in Forlì for one or two semesters. This MA program relies also on the cooperation of Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas and Corvinus University of Budapest and soon it seems that University of Zagreb will  join us. «MIREES» is a program taught in English. So, we have classes on history, politics, sociology, anthropology of East and Central Europe and Russia, of course, former Soviet Central Asia, but what is also interesting is that we have also a language component, so we have three levels of Russian, elementary courses of Serbo-Croatian, Lithuanian, Slovak, and Bulgarian. Our students can select one of these languages, attend courses and the most advanced of them are coming to Saint-Petersburg.

In addition to that I recently had a meeting with your pro-rectors - professor Aplonov and professor Andrushin. And we strengthened the relations with «MIREES», but also focused on research and joint labs. We aim to exploit the mobility of the staff for strengthening the possibility to identify core topics for joint research activities and prepare joint programs for research. So, we have great potential and great perspectives about the cooperation between our two Universities.

 

- What can attract Russian students to take part in exchange programs in University of Bologna or try to get further education on some Masters programs in Italy?

1.    Their coming would be great. They are more than welcome for several reasons. We have lots of students, not only Italians. We have students from Turkey, from China, from USA, from Central Asia, from France, from Norway, and since the large part of them is studying Russian, meeting Russian students is a plus for them, because they meet outside the classroom, they learn much more about the country, about their classmates, so I think it would be very important. And this is also a great opportunity for Russian students to enrich their knowledge by studying abroad, meeting an international Faculty and learning from a plurality of approaches. So I would encourage Russian students to submit their applications for «MIREES». 

 

-  Does University of Bologna gives its students an opportunity for internships and practical application of their knowledge?

-  Yes, actually we encourage it, but, to be honest, with some reluctance ... And I'll explain why there is the reluctance. Our programme «MIREES», for instance, has lectures during the first three semesters, but the fourth semester is completely free, for writing the thesis. Most of the students during this fourth semester like to have internship, because they think that writing the thesis is a rapid thing, then they discover that it is not, but this is another question. We have an office and a list of internship offers. They can select from the list what is interesting for them. Or, they can find something by themselves in international organizations, embassies and so on. By the way, serving the internship does not necessarily occur in Italy, but it can be everywhere in the world. So, this practical part exists. My personal reluctance is related to the fact that very often since students have to work 8 hours per day, and therefore they might delay their own graduation. And this is something that particularly in the European Union (within framework of the European High Education Area) is not well appreciated, because students must end their study cycle in time. I remember that one of my best students once came to complain about the fact that he had to work for 8 hours a day and for this reason he wanted to postpone the thesis defense. I told him :"Impossible, you're young and you know, the day has 24 hours. So you can work 8 hours, you can write 8 hours, and sleep 8 hours. You can do that!" and he said "Ok professor, I understand the message» and actually he graduated in time, he's an excellent student. We have to teach our students working under stress, respecting deadlines, working in team: these transversal skills are something that our program is providing, all these are crucial opportunities for enhancing the students’ learning. And I think that for this reason probably MIREES is so successful and all our partners here in the university are very proud of this program.

 

-Are there any special aspects or methods of teaching in Saint-Petersburg University that Italian professors take into account and (vice versa)?

-      Well, I can only say that your professors, who’re coming to teach in Forlì, have very high qualification and reward from students. And about the way I’m teaching, if I have lectures I organise them in such a way that I give more homework and actually the students I've met so far, they did that. They were divided in groups, they had to organize themselves. Then I put them in circles, we moved all the tables, so we created a little bit of confusion in the classroom, but I understood from students that they appreciate this way of teaching. What I found out maybe is that unless your students already went abroad, they are a little bit shy in raising question and stopping a professor for clarifications. The only way to encourage them is to involve them in the readings discussion or to ask them for comments. So, I also understand that during classes there is still a sense of distance with a professor, a distance that doesn't encourage students to have more dialogue approach with the lecturer. This is something that can be overcome in the future more and more!

 

-      What about the financial help for students, who want to apply for these programs? Are there any available scholarships?

-      We have several opportunities for scholarships. One of the greatest opportunities is participation in the GRE exam. If you've passed the exam and you're accepted into the program, you have the right of a flat and 11 000 Euro per year, plus you won't pay the tuition fee. So I think it's the best opportunity offered. Then, there are other opportunities; for instance, we have a High College that offers additional opportunities for very good students, if they pass the exam, they get a flat, no tuition fee, and 3000 Euro per year. But they must maintain a very high average - in both cases - of marks. Then we have additional opportunities. Every year we offer at least 5-6 fee waivers. The best students (particularly not Italian or with no-Italian citizenship) can get fee waiver. They don't pay any taxes for at least one year, so this is also another encouragement. There is another opportunity that can be combined with the previously mentioned fee waiver. The region Emilia-Romagna is offering a program called "ERGO" that requires students to submit their own application and the assessment is not based on merit, but on family income. So, if family income is competitive, as it happens very often with students coming from Eastern or Central Europe and Russia, they are treated equally with all Italian students, because in the moment when they're enrolled, they're treated as students of University of Bologna, regardless of their citizenship. Thanks to this program, students might have a room, and/or a fee weaver of half fee waiver, according to the family income level.

 

-        Are students obligated to know Italian for Masters programs University of Bologna offers?

-         The program «MIREES» is in English, so Italian language is not required. But if students want to learn some Italian for survival, we have courses of Italian for foreigners. We also have organizations of students that assist foreign students enrolled or incoming students in mobility to understand the organization of the program. Students’ organizations also organize the welcome in the railway stations, they help students to enter into the new environment without any kind of risk, I would say.

 

-        And the last question. Do you think that your visit this spring was productive?

 - This wasn’t the last visit. I’ll have to come here again, probably between September and October and then again in spring time next year. So this is some sort of regular visit of Saint-Petersburg State University. Well, from my point of view, it was highly productive. I enjoyed very much meeting with your pro-rectors, with your Dean professor Novikova. With my Russian colleagues I had very stimulating exchange of ideas and projects. I also enjoyed very much lectures with the students. I think we have really great perspective and potentials for enhancing and broadening our cooperation. And for the time I’m still rector’s delegate, I’ll do my best for encouraging and developing this kind of cooperation.

 

Interviewer - Solomina Daria (3rd year student of the School of International Relations SPbU) 

 
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