I decided to write a bit about my Romanian university experience, in a more descriptive fashion than wistful remembrance, maybe I’ll leave that for another time. To the title, I am not sure what the exact worldwide ranking is these days for the old Polytechnic U of Bucharest, but I doubt it cracks the top 1000, so top 10000 should cover it. Of course, this is today. Back when I was attending, it was considerably worse.

I probably witnessed the lowest point of this institution of higher learning. It was in the post communism dump, but before some new investments came about, after Romania joined the EU. When I attended, the university was a 5 year affair. Nowadays, it is only 4. The Electronics Telecommunications and Information Technology department, which is what I did, was probably the most prestigious of the lot of ’em. But that is not saying much. It did have a competitive admission, with about 3-4 times the candidates as spots available. The admission process was based on 25% the baccalaureate grade (mine was 9.4 out of 10, the Romanian literature component dragged me down) and 75% based on an entrance exam, half math and half physics (I had 9.8 out of 10 because I messed up some cross product on some electromagnetic induction question on my physics exam ). But in the end I got in without a sweat and then it seemed like an achievement at the time. While the university is so called “free” in Romania, this does not necessarily mean that poor students attend more than in the US, as well to do students often have tutoring to compensate the fabulous free high school education, and do better at entrance exams.

The next 5 years were thoroughly disappointing. This was in part because I was not really good with the ladies and such missed a component of the university experience. This was amplified by the fact that there were not that many ladies in the first place in electronics, a thing that seems somewhat improved in the present, and the campus was standalone, not grouped with other universities. There was even a sexist joke along the lines there are two types of girls-beautiful and those who attend a polytechnic.

Being from Bucharest myself, I was not eligible for a dorm room – there were not enough of these and saved for people who were from outside of the city – and so, as all my Bucharest colleagues, I lived with my parents the whole 5 years. So I did not have the “dorm room” part of the experience, for good and bad – and there is probably a lot more bad in Romania than the US.

Now… the actual scholarly part of the deal was shit. The course material was 30 years out of date, because no self-respecting Romanian university full professor bothers to keep the course material up to date. The lab equipment was 30 years out of date and falling apart. So were the buildings. We had a full semester of studying black and white television and another studying the wonders of color – PAL, SECAM, NTSC et al. In many classrooms there were not enough chairs, so we would wander around the building trying to find unoccupied rooms that still had chairs in them.

The largest lecture hall did not have functional heating, which was a pleasure in winter. The pleasure was enhanced by the smell of food coming through the floor from the cafeteria kitchen right below it. Other lecture halls had fewer places than people who were required to attend, and such some had to stand.

The structure of the student body was as follows: there was a large group called “serie” which consisted of 150 people. A lecture by the professor was to be attended (but never was) by all at once, where the theoretical part of the course would be presented. We would further be divided in 5 “grupa” of 30. With this group we attended something called “seminar” in Romanian, in which we did more practical applications of the theory presented in the lectures, but still pen and paper only. These groups would be split in half groups of 15 which would do “laborator” the most practical thing, with actual equipment, should it work properly, which it rarely did. A group had a 3 letter designation e.g. 321 meaning year 3 serie 2 grupa 1.

Overall lecture attendance was generally not mandatory, so we mostly did not attend. We would arrange to have enough people each time so the professor did not get too mad about an empty room. Seminar was more important, but you could skip a few. On the other hand, laborator class – this basically was supposed to be hands on but was rarely so due to the aforementioned broken equipment – was mandatory, miss one and you could not finish the class and get the credit, you did not even take the final exam without the lab hours. Off course these were done with subgroups, so if you missed yours you could go another time and do it. But you had to have 100% completed, even if it meant just sitting for an hour doing nothing. And I mean nothing, I had a friend who fell asleep on the chair, and woke up an hour later to find he had drooled on his pants. You had to produce some experimental results from the lab work, but that generally mean basically drawing some graphs as they were supposed to look and then making up experimental measurements to fit the graph.

There were two semesters and each ended with a period of exams in February and mid-June to mid-July. In that period there were no classes, and the exams were spaced out about 4-5 days apart. We had between 5 and 8 classes per semester, and such between 5 and 8 exams. People did not generally study much during the year, and would cram as much as possible in 4-5 days, take the exam, and then forget everything to cram for the next one.

And there was plenty of cheating. There were primitive techniques – crib notes on small pieces of paper, and advanced ones as well. The most advanced implied a small microphone which you would place in your ear using a small magnetic implement. It was invisible from outside. You had a small camera in a wristwatch band. You would send photos to a conspirator with a laptop outside of the room and they would dictate answers in the microphone. There was also a mobile phone involved for the voice part– this was before smartphones – and a hands free hidden in one’s shirt and a series of coughs to make the dictations slower or faster. It was a trick to it, one had to make sure they were writing as if thinking about it, not too automatic, otherwise it looked suspicious. You also should have had two phones, because teachers sometimes asked for the phones to be shut down and placed somewhere visible, so that no one was using them for cheating. So you used the second phone for cheating. Why so much trouble? Because most of the exams were nonsense, and you did not only need to know the subject matter, but you needed to know it in the exact way that professor was teaching it to get good grades. Because many teachers were selling books, and you should buy their book to know exactly how they phrase it to get good grades. There was a prosperous Xerox industry to minimize this cost for students.

There were cheating mishaps as well, like the time one of my friends was all wired up, and the person outside simply dictated the wrong Greek letters on some formulas. If you failed an exam, you had the chance to take it again in August. I never had a failed exam, but I did wake up early in the middle of summer holiday on several occasions to support a friend. In one of those cases, I dictated the correct Greek letters, but my friend got them confused. Still, 55% is a pass, so we take what we get.

Most times when not in classes, but having to hang around university, we would spend time in “The Filth” as the local student bar was called. While not living in dorms – most of my friends were from Bucharest, we did go to the area of the dorms because most of the cheap student night clubs were there, to drink or play pool or ping pong or bowling and hang out and such.

So the university years trudged along, learning little and spending a lot of time doing nothing. There were better or worse days – ones where you had mandatory classes between 6 and 10 PM for example, or others with classes from 8 AM to 11 AM and then again from 2 PM to 5 PM.

Attendance dwindled as the years went by to the bare minimum, as people got jobs to gain some money and experience. Being a technical school, most looked for jobs in the burgeoning field of IT. In years 1 and 2 I helped my father out with his small business, and in year 3 I got the first full time job myself, for a small software company doing inventory and management software for warehouses and shops and such, starting out at $180 US a month. The good part is that there was the understanding that I would work less during exams period and that I could take time off to get the mandatory classes in. But I did work some Saturdays and Sundays during regular times to compensate, as some of the clients were closed over the weekend and had the time for us to install and test things. Given the paucity of things studied in University, I was happy for the actual hands-on experience. And in the end it looked good on my otherwise empty CV. But this is maybe a story for another time. In these times, actual internships are a thing, and part time “working student” gigs at corporations such as the one I work for now, so there is less pressure to get that first job early.

The last semester of year 5 we had no classes and was used to prepare the final graduate project. I did that in Torino on an Erasmus scholarship, and got to experience what a better, though still not fantastic, Polytechnic looks like, and it put into perspective the shitiness of our own. Most did not take this much more seriously than the rest of the time. And we all got a nice engineering degree and little else to show for it. But, in this world we live in, that degree is important and it helped. Overall, while we bitched about it, the effort put in the university was not that much. It was some, and mostly pointless, but thems be the breaks and there were a few fun times to be fair. In the end, it was free at the point of delivery, for whatever that is worth, so at least I did not get any fucking debt out of it.