In Italy, as in other Western European countries, the tradition of university studies dates back to the Middle Ages (11th and 12th century), when groups of students and scholars founded “universitates studiorum ” in cities such as Bologna and Paris. These “universitates” were corporations which were initially conceived to defend the rights and privileges of the two abovementioned categories. They soon developed into centres of cultural debate, study and research and were open to scholars and students of any nationality. Subsequently, more “universitates studiorum” were created by popes, emperors or kings. The Università degli studi di Napoli Federico II, for example, was founded in 1224 by Frederick II of Sweden and King of Naples.
During the following centuries, the universities of the many different states which made up the Italian peninsula were gradually turned into state institutions under the control of the respective public authorities and by the time Italy had been unified in 1861, this process was complete. A consequence of this process was the strongly centralised character of the Italian university system, a feature that despite reform in 1923 remained substantially unchanged until the late eighties.
Partly out of cultural tradition, partly due to political interests, university education became to be seen more and more as a means to achieve higher social status. Consequently, in the sixties and the seventies social demand for university education grew considerably and this massive increase in student numbers meant that reform was necessary.
A significant reform process started in 1989, marking the first step towards the decentralisation of the university sector. The Ministry for Universities and Research (Ministero dell’Università e della Ricerca Scientifica e Tecnologica - Murst) was set up as a separate body from the Ministry of National Education (Ministero della Pubblica Istruzione - MPI), which until then had been responsible for all educational levels from primary to tertiary. It asserted the principle of university autonomy in management, financial and budgetary issues, teaching (organisation of degree courses along with all related teaching/learning services) and research.
The new Ministry’s role consisted primarily in defining and coordinating general policy for university education, promoting and planning research and overseeing Italian participation in European Union and international programmes for university education and research. A complex decentralisation process took place in the period 1990-1998 which resulted not only in the implementation of full institutional autonomy for universities, but also in a significant number of transformations and innovations leading to the creation of new types of faculties and degree courses, reorganisation of student welfare services and the introduction of a quality assurance system. It redefined the rules and procedures for the recruitment of academics and reorganised doctoral studies, abolishing the national selection procedures for admission. It also sought to decongest overcrowded universities with the establishment of 9 new higher education institutions.
In addition to the changes and innovations that were implemented in the university sector in this period, an even more substantial reform was recently approved in 1999 and introduced with the academic year 2001/2. The main purpose of the reform was to grant full autonomy to universities for management and finance as well as for teaching and course planning.
The reform has taken into account the principles of the Sorbonne Declaration (signed on 25 May 1998 by the Ministers of Education of 4 EU countries, namely France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom) and the Bologna Declaration (a joint statement of 31 European Ministers of Education signed on 19 June 1999) whichpromote the creation of a European Higher Education Areathrough the harmonisation of the different European educational systems.
The ministerial decree No. 509 of 3rd November 1999 laid down the general criteria to be adopted by universities in the reorganisation of their degree courses and established the types of degrees and qualifications that universities are allowed to award.
The reforms introduced since the end of the eighties have often been complex procedures and have often met with resistance or concern from the different parties involved. However, these reforms have been essential in order to transform the old elite university system into one of wider access.(In the last 50 years, enrolments in Italian universities have increased by 700% reachinga total of 1.650.000 students.)
In order to guarantee both quantity and quality, it has therefore been necessary to review the entire university system in the light of needs expressed by very different users with different abilities and motivations.Orientation, innovative teaching methods, tutoring, student welfare, professional qualifications and internationalisation are some of the new tasks that Italian universities must take on today and which are transforming their traditional relationship with the student body.
The process of change does not concern only teaching and student relationships.There is a far reaching transformation taking place within the very structure of the university itself and in its relationship with society and the local community. Today’s society places many pressing, and at times contradictory, demands on education and training providers. They are expected to provide solutions to the problems of competitiveness, unemployment and marginalisation, and to play a part in overcoming the challenges of dramatic transformation in our society.
Europe sees education as an active tool in the labourmarket able to curb unemployment especially among young people, to increase competitiveness and disseminate technology. Italy has set a number of higher education objectives which seek to bring it in line with the other industrialised countries of the European Union: an increase in studentenrolments in higher education, a reduction in drop out rates, an improved geographical distribution and social spread, as well as better student support and welfare services.A number of measures have been introduced to offer a wider variety ofhigher education pathways, including the new higher technical education and training sector, (Istruzione e Formazione tecnica superiore - IFTS) to solve the problems of overcrowding in the very large universities and to set up a national evaluation system linked to an incentive policy for the distribution of resources.
The key that brought about a change in attitude before organisational change took place was university autonomy: self government, accountability, a new approach to student support and welfare services as well as to the demand for education and innovation from both the workforce and the local community.
Teaching autonomyhas created the opportunity for redesigning course offerings, reducing the length of studies, bringing down the drop out rate and increasing employability levels through a complete overhaul of university cycles.
The ministerial decree no. 509 of 3rd November 1999 established the new framework and identified thegeneral criteria for universities to autonomously design their new degree courses.
The first objective of the reform is the implementation of teaching autonomy. This means that universities lay down the regulations for their degree courses, establishing the names and learning outcomes, the general framework for different teaching/learning activities that must be included in the curriculum, the credits allocated to each subject course and the type of final exam to obtain the qualification.
The second objective of the reform is to bring the Italian Higher Education System in line with the European two-tier university model as established in the Sorbonne and Bologna Declarations. This model is seen as a tool for harmonising European degree structures as well as promoting international student mobility, free circulation of labour and international academic recognition, the goals for the European Higher Education Area in 2010.
To meet these aims, Italy has reformed its higher education in two distinct sectors – the university and the non-university sector, the latter comprising mainly arts, music and language mediation as well as post secondary technical education and training (Istruzione e Formazione tecnica superiore).
The third objective of the reform is to make the Italian university system more student centred.It has introduced asystem of credits (Crediti Formativi Universitari) based on the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS). One of the objectives of this new credit system is to reduce the gap between legal and real duration of university courses and curb the dropout rate.
The fourth objective of the reform is to increase flexibilityand quality within the system. This means simplified procedures that enable universities to adapt their courses according to demands for education and to changes in the labour market along with effective quality assessment systems.
Once all the different stages of the reform have been introduced, the following outcomes are expected:
It is expected that further reforms will take place in the coming years in order to reach these objectives.