Higher education

An overview of Italian universities

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.

Higher education

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. 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.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy from Survival Books.

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