In the wacky and wonderful role I find myself in as a blogger about English-language med schools in Italy, I get contacted by a lot of prospective students — hundreds in the last year — and I can count on at least two hands the number of candidates who have told me, the students in Pavia said DON’T GO TO MILAN! However, inversely, I don’t know of a single case in which a Milan student told a candidate not to go to Pavia. It might have happened. I, personally, have spent quite a bit of time in Pavia, and I like it there. I’ve been to parties, classes, and art exhibitions, and Pavia is cozy and academic, with cobblestone streets and cycling professors — kind of like Cambridge, England, with graffiti.
The reasons that have been reported to me, that Pavians don’t recommend Milan, don’t really make sense. I’ve been told they’ve said Milan is ugly — it’s not — expensive — it’s not — or impolite — which it definitely is not. On the contrary, Milan has award-winning architecture, affordable housing for students, and a general atmosphere of mannered elegance. A New York Times editorialist even posited recently that Milan is the real capital of Italy.
Both Pavia and Milan are great places to study.
So, how did the rivalry between the two schools develop? I’ll try to tell the story as I know it — which is only bits and pieces.
Pavia was the first school in Italy — indeed, in the western world — to dare open a nearly free medical school to everyone on Earth. To get in, you just have to have completed a certain amount of schooling, not be a felon, and, of course, score highly enough on the IMAT exam. As I’ve written before, a profound democratic, meritocratic, and egalitarian philosophy underlies these programmes. They give anyone a chance to be a doctor, learning in the lingua franca of science, almost entirely regardless of where they come from and what their resources. The University of Pavia, and the founders of its Harvey English-language course, deserve a huge amount of praise for actually putting these ideals into practice. Pavia was the first Italian university to have an international medical school, and it will always carry that distinction. Congratulations, Pavia!
Milan, however, is a city more well-known to the rest of the world, and it was only a year later — on Pavia’s inspiration — that the University of Milan decided to open what is now IMS Milan. It was at that point, I believe, that the caterpillar of rivalry started crawling around, ready to molt, some six years later, into the butterfly that will flutter into the stadium in Pavia tomorrow. I have found some online, now unpublished commentary from Pavians from the early days of 2011 and 2012, and they disparage the Milan English course; they joke about its “shiny” website and the “much higher” cost of living in Milan.
You can kind of understand where the Pavians were coming from: Milan probably felt to them like an upstart. It is just 30 minutes away, and its university-polytechnic combine to make a huge international research institution. IMS Milan could easily overshadow Harvey Pavia. Indeed, in a sense, Milan has done so; its IMAT threshold is higher and admissions rate lower. (On the other hand, this statistical analysis from Milan’s Jeff Liu shows that Pavia and Milan are very similar in the IMAT profile of their student bodies.) For EU-affiliated applicants to Milan and Pavia, first-round entry in 2016 was limited only to 1.5% and 2.5% of applicants, respectively. Even Yale Medical School, America’s most competitive, has an admissions rate of 4%. (However, this comparison can only yield the insight limited by the different applicant pools of Milan, Pavia and Yale.)
As time passed, Harvey Pavia and the Milan programme went on to develop very different cultures. Harvey started admitting 100 students a year, 40% non-EU-affiliated, while the Milan programme, originally headquartered at Humanitas University in Rozzano south of the city, went through what many people describe as a “painful” split, becoming two separate small English-language schools, the private Humanitas and public IMS Milan, the latter of which took up residence at LITA Segrate. IMS Milan’s class is half the size of Harvey’s — 50 students — with 33% non-EU-affiliated. Harvey started hiring professors from abroad — such as California and England — to teach first and second-year students, whereas IMS’s first-year educational staff remains entirely made up of Italians. Harvey eliminated (or never had?) attendance requirements at classes, and almost completely got rid of oral exams, because, as Pavia’s dean told me, “oral exams are necessarily subjective.” Pavia also limited the amount of times a student could retake an exam. IMS, meanwhile, strictly enforces its 66% attendance requirement — if you only reach 65%, you have to resit a whole module another year — and maintains intense, public oral exams in almost every subject, for many reasons, from preparing students to explain medicine to patients under stressful conditions, to controlling for cheating. Conversely, IMS students can retake exams as many times as they want. Harvey is situated in a big medical campus and basically a single hospital, teeming with students from many disciplines, while IMS classes are in a research facility shared only with a few hundred biotech students, but with clinical rotations in at least nine different hospitals around Milan. If Pavia is like Cambridge, then IMS Milan is like NYU in New York; “the city is our campus.”
Harvey is, then, sheltered, less scheduled, and more like a traditional US campus with a strong Anglo-American influence in its faculty, while Milan is bright-lights-big-city; its schedule is more demanding and structured, its faculty more traditionally Italian in teaching methodology, and sweat drips down our brows from the lamps of oral exams. Pavia has recently felt to me a tick more cheerful (although that has again changed with Milan’s incoming class, a remarkably merry bunch), while Milan a tick more cosmopolitan.
Students, I’m guessing, particularly Pavians, sense these divergences, and this has ultimately fed the rivalry. But the bottom line remains: these schools have no reason other than the superficial to dislike each other. On the contrary, they have similar goals and visions, and a lot to learn from one another.
That’s why the match tomorrow is so important. It is first true, organized event between Harvey Pavia and IMS Milan, except for a few informal aperitivi in past years. In fact, it will be the first true, organized formal event between any two English-language med schools in Italy,. Tomorrow there will be banners and uniforms, a referee and a football with a map of the world on it, symbolising the international outlook of our schools. The Pavians and Milanese will meet and talk and laugh and jeer and cheer, will go out together afterwards for drinks and dinner and tell stories about their schools. Friends will be made — who knows? Romance may bloom — and we’ll all have a better sense of what works at our schools, and what doesn’t. Tomorrow begins the next stage in the evolution of the English-language med schools in Italy, which is tighter communication between their student bodies. Hopefully, more football matches will follow, with the Rome and Naples schools and Bari, and then maybe not just football matches but also social events and conferences and… there are so many possibilities. We’ll all be able to trade ideas, brainstorm, support each other, and be better, together.