Over a million students attend institutes of higher education in Italy, although the country produces a smaller percentage of graduates than most other western countries. The country has around 90 institutes of higher education, including 47 state universities, several private universities and over 20 institutes of physical education. There are also two universities of Italian language and culture. There’s a university in every major city in Italy, some with a number of branches situated in different towns throughout a region. The University of Bologna (11th century) is the world’s oldest and highly regarded, while Rome has three universities, the oldest being La Sapienza. Other higher education facilities include the University Naval Institute in Naples and the College of Education in Pisa.
Higher education is controlled by the Ministry for Universities (Ministero dell’Università e della Ricerca Scientifica e Tecnologica/MURST). Universities are organised into faculties for different teaching subjects and departments, which are in charge of research. Most degree subjects are offered by all universities (apart from a few specialised fields, such as music, which is taught in academies or conservatoires) and anyone with an upper secondary school diploma can apply to study any subject provided there are places available. However, for degree courses that are heavily over-subscribed (which include architecture, dentistry, medicine and veterinary science), universities set entrance examinations (esame di ammissione) to select the best candidates. Non-EU students are required to take an Italian-language exam unless they possess a CILS certificate (see Language Schools on page 191).
There’s no central clearing system for enrolment in Italian universities and you must apply to each university separately. There are enrolment fees (tasse di iscrizione) which are payable at the beginning of each year or in instalments throughout the year, plus regional taxes of around €80. Each faculty sets its own course fees, average fees for first-year students being around €550 (for the year). Students from families with medium to low incomes are entitled to grants, information about which is available from the student welfare office (Diritto allo Studio Universitario/DSU). Foreign applicants must provide a translation of their qualifications (obtainable through Italian consulates), which must usually be equivalent to a high school diploma or 12 years’ education. Applications must be made to Italian consulates by May for enrolment the following September; non-EU students must apply through an Italian consulate in their home country.
Italian universities are frequently criticised for the academic nature of their courses. Although students have some choice over their study programme (piano di studi), the curriculum for each subject is fairly standardised (there’s little variation between courses offered by different universities) and there’s generally little room for self-expression. As in schools, students are expected to study set texts (sometimes written by the professors) and are examined on their knowledge. The emphasis is firmly on self-motivation and determination, particularly in view of the drawn-out nature of university degrees. Overcrowding in lecture-halls for popular courses is common, resulting in a more distant relationship between students and professors than in some other countries, and the student drop-out rate is high.
Many students live with their parents and attend the nearest university to their home, particularly in large cities such as Rome, where student accommodation is prohibitively expensive. Others enrol at a university in the north or in Rome, particularly students from the south of Italy, and look for part-time work to support themselves during their study (even part-time work is difficult to find in the south) as well as to have better employment prospects when they graduate.
The average student must pass over 20 exams to obtain a degree (some subjects, such as medicine, require students to take around 50 exams), most of which are oral rather than written. Of these, a certain number are obligatory and common to all study programmes, while the rest are in subjects chosen by students. Courses, each of which is followed by an exam, can be pursued in any order and, if you fail an exam, you’re permitted to retake it any number of times. Attendance at lectures is mostly voluntary, leaving students free to pursue their studies at home if they prefer, although some professors insist on attendance at lectures. The regular submission of essays throughout a course isn’t generally required, although students must write a thesis (usually of between 50,000 and 60,000 words) at the end of their course in order to earn their degree.
The structure of the Italian university system allows students to take a longer time to complete their degrees than is usual in the UK and the US. The number of years necessary to complete a degree (corso di laurea) at an Italian university is laid down by law. Most degree courses are for a minimum of four years but some (e.g. medicine and architecture) are for six. However, few students manage to complete their degrees in the minimum period and it’s usual for students to take seven or eight years, with the result that many are in their mid to late 20s by the time they graduate.
The traditional qualifications awarded at Italian universities are a university degree (diploma di laurea), a specialised diploma (diploma di specializzazione) and a research doctorate (dottorato di ricerca). Universities have recently introduced a university diploma (diploma universitario) or short degree course lasting two or three years. These are currently in specialised fields of engineering, physical education, auxiliary medicine (e.g. nursing and physiotherapy) and languages, with admission for the limited number of places available by competitive examination. Foreign students who wish to accumulate credits at an Italian university without completing a degree course may apply to do individual subject courses (corsi singoli).
Student accommodation isn’t usually provided by Italian universities, although some subsidised student housing (casa dello studente) may be available through the DSU. The majority of students make their own arrangements and there’s usually a university notice board where rooms and apartments are advertised for rent. Students should expect to pay anything between €200 (central and southern regions) and €280 (Rome and northern cities) per month for a room in a shared apartment. In addition to rent, students must usually pay utility bills plus maintenance for items such as cookers, refrigerators and washing machines. Italian universities offer little in the way of extra-curricular sports and social activities (there’s no ‘campus’ feel as in American universities), although most have a refectory (mensa) where inexpensive, wholesome food is available.
In addition to Italian institutions of higher education, there are a number of American colleges and universities in Italy offering an American degree programme, e.g. Johns Hopkins University in Bologna (: www.jhu.edu) and John Cabot University in Rome (: www.johncabot.edu). John Cabot University offers four-year BA degrees on a rolling admission basis in art history, business administration, English literature, international affairs and political science, as well as associate degrees and credit transfers on a semester basis for students wishing to do part of their study in Italy. Fees are around €10,500 per year, but there are various financial aid and scholarship packages available. Students come from around 40 countries and universities offer many extra-curricular activities. A list of American institutions of higher education in Italy and information about American study programmes at Italian institutions can be obtained from the American embassy in Italy (: www.usembassy.it) and from the cultural sections of Italian embassies abroad.
EU nationals who wish to complete part of their studies at an Italian university may be interested in the Erasmus programme, part of the EU Socrates programme funded by the European Commission. Under this programme, students don’t pay fees for attending an Italian university (although you may need to continue to pay fees at your own university) and grants are available to cover the costs of moving, language training and a higher cost of living (if applicable). For further information, contact the Erasmus Bureau, Rue Montoyer 70, B-1040 Brussels, Belgium (( +32-2-233 011), your country’s national Erasmus agency or your university’s Erasmus representative. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs also allocates a number of scholarships to foreign students attending courses at Italian universities. Information is available from Italian embassies abroad.
For further information about universities in Italy, contact the Dipartimento per l’Autonomia Universitaria e gli Studenti, Ministero dell’Università e della Ricerca Scientifica e Tecnologica, Piazzale J. F. Kennedy, 20, 00144 Rome (( 06 59911). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides information about applying to universities on its website (www.esteri.it), and Campus Web (www. campusweb.it) provides a wealth of information about Italian universities. The publication, Higher Education in Italy: A Guide for Foreigners, contains comprehensive information about all aspects of higher education and is available free from MURST at the above address (( 06-5991 2319). Requests must be made in writing, by post or fax. DSU offices provide free guides to student services. and some universities have an office that provides advice to foreign students.
This excerpt has been republished with permission from Survival Books. Some of the information may apply to EU citizens only. If you would like to get the inside track on moving to Italy, pick up your copy of this great book by clicking here.