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Il Cavaliere's invitation to the 'friends' of liberalism

Italian PM plans private university ... and wants Vladimir Putin on board. Colin Graham reports

Silvio Berlusconi has attracted a good deal of controversy since he first became Italy's prime minister in 1994, and this looks set to continue if his plans for a new university come to fruition.

Late last month, Mr Berlusconi invited his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to become the first lecturer at an institution that the Italian leader intends to build near Milan.

Mr Putin readily accepted the offer, according to the Italian prime minister.

The institution would be called l'Universita del Pensiero Liberale (the University of Liberal Studies) and Mr Berlusconi looks set to try to lure a number of other current and former world leaders to join as lecturers. Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Mikhail Gorbachev have all been mentioned in Italy in relation to the scheme.

But the choice of Mr Putin to spearhead the project has raised eyebrows - many would argue that the former KGB head has done little to enhance "liberalism" in his own country.

Some have poured scorn on Mr Berlusconi's move, saying that it smacks of little more than opportunism and self-aggrandisement.

The attempt to woo Mr Putin has also led commentators to suggest sarcastically that Mr Berlusconi could invite other advocates of "liberalism" such as Belarus' leader Alexander Lukashenko and the Libyan ruler Mu'ammer Gaddafi to teach at his private academy.

Yet others believe that the Italian leader is motivated by a sincere political vision.

Anna Bull, professor of Italian and European studies at the University of Bath's department of European studies and modern languages, told Times Higher Education: "Mr Berlusconi's idea is to set up an institution able to challenge the dominance of Leftist thought in Italy and help shape and train the future political and ruling class of the country."

Professor Bull added that the project would entail developing a "private campus-style university with four faculties: economy and commerce; law; political science; and communications".

Should the project get off the ground, it could have a significant impact on the future of higher education in Italy, according to Professor Bull.

"It will not impact directly on the state university system, but it may accelerate a trend towards the private sector in providing secondary and higher education," she said.

One of the Italian academy's most renowned private institutions is Bocconi University in Milan. It has existed for more than a century and claims to have an admirable record of students securing graduate jobs once they have completed their courses.

The rector of the university, Guido Tabellini, said: "About 80 to 90 per cent of our graduates find the job of their choice within six months of leaving."

Mr Berlusconi may have been keeping a keen eye on developments at Bocconi, given that it is located near one of his oft-noted stamping grounds.

If the experience of Bocconi is anything to go by, his overtures to foreign leaders are likely to be addressed as much to the world's aspirational youth as to the potential lecturers themselves: two-thirds of the university's MBA students hail from abroad. The Italian prime minister no doubt will have taken note of that statistic.

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