The north-south divide between Italy's 60 or so state universities, which reflects the country's economic and social rift, could widen under government plans to give universities greater autonomy.
Ambitious southern youngsters already go north to study and well-qualified academics are reluctant to take jobs in the south.
The decentralisation reform package sponsored by university minister Luigi Berlinguer seeks to force universities to compete for students. It also devolves responsibility for recruiting academics from the state to universities.
The policy of introducing more competition between universities jars with a law that assigns an identical legal status to degrees from all state universities. The law's importance has declined with the state's demise as an employer, but is still an obstacle to unfettered competition, which Professor Berlinguer believes will gradually weed out nepotism, absenteeism and inefficiency.
Amid all of these changes, southern universities will be hard-pressed to compete with northern institutions in attracting the best available academics and students.
Their greatest handicap is their environment. The north and much of central Italy have thriving economies with high incomes and low unemployment. In the south, income levels are 20-40 per cent lower and joblessness is 50 per cent among the young in some areas.
The regionsuffers from crime-ridden urban poverty that cannot but blight the general atmosphere of a university. The fact that the Mafia is often more powerful than the police and the courts is a grim reality, and an obstacle to economic development.
Academics with power and prestige tend to get positions in Bologna, Padua, Turin or Milan. The others resign themselves to a stint in the south while striving to find a job in the north.
Luciano Guerzoni, under-secretary for universities, believes the quality gap is more perceived than real. "In the south, as in the rest of Italy, there is a variety of good and bad. Catania University in Sicily is one of Italy's most dynamic and healthy institutions. Naples University has departments that are universally recognised for their excellence. The north-south distinction is unjust."
That said, Mr Guerzoni accepts that many southern universities suffer from a "very backward cultural context" and a lack of infrastructure for students.
"We have critical situations in some southern universities because of the degeneration of the social fabric. The south has many very small universities, which lack the critical mass needed to generate quality teaching and research.
He said that the education ministry is planning regional or inter-regional higher education networks so that a small university can develop a specialty. "This should raise the quality," he said.
"In the north, small universities fare much better because they are immersed in a culturally evolved, modern context, surrounded by a thriving economy, often close to important large universities."
Many academics commute to the south to give lectures twice a week. Those in fields connected to a profession are unwilling to live in economically depressed areas with few professional outlets.
"This should change with the new system of concorsi, the competitive exams to obtain posts," Mr Guerzoni said. "Each university will be largely responsible for picking its academics, and it will have to pick the best it can to attract students. And a new rule requires academics to keep a job for at least three years. There is another rule, largely disregarded, that lecturers must live in the immediate vicinity of their university, but universities rarely enforce it."
It will be hard to eradicate a university culture that is more feudal than meritocratic. But if the reforms go to plan it is possible that in 20 years some southern universities will have closed while others have blossomed.