Italian universities have become more efficient and productive since autonomy was granted to individual institutions in 1992, according to a survey by the higher education ministry's national evaluation committee.
In 1999, 38.5 per cent of students who enrolled six years earlier had graduated, compared with 35.3 per cent in 1992. The number of students who graduate before the age of 26 has also increased substantially.
Despite signs of improvement, Italian higher education remains inefficient. Just over 60 per cent of first-year students failed to graduate, and 44 per cent of students have failed to keep up with their course schedule.
The figures also show a sharp drop in enrolments, down 6.3 per cent in 1999 compared with 1998.
This is due to Italy's low birth rate over the past 25 years, but possibly also to a gradual increase in tuition fees.
Statistics also show discrepancies in productivity in what until recently was considered a centralised and homogeneous higher education system.
Luigi Biggeri, vice-president of the committee, said: "There are notable differences between universities, but also between faculties and degree courses."
The committee allocates funds. It is hoped that financial incentives, combined with the new system of three years for a basic degree plus another two for a second-stage degree with a US-style system of credits, will spur universities to increase efficiency.