The Italian government has approved legislation aimed at ending years of confusion, chaos and legal wrangling over limits on access to certain degree courses.
The package of new laws, if ratified by parliament, should once and for all establish the right of the university ministry to set ceilings for enrolments on certain degree courses on the basis of job-market demand. Individual universities will also be able to limit access if this is deemed necessary to prevent overcrowding and to guarantee efficient teaching.
"In Italy, this is an acute problem," said higher education minister Ortensio Zecchino. "We have more architects than the rest of Europe and there is an extraordinary surplus of doctors."
Medicine, dentistry, veterinary science, architecture and teacher-training courses will be affected immediately the law is passed. In addition, ceilings will be set for certain paramedical diploma courses and for some specialisations in the legal profession. It is possible that once the legal principle is established, it may be extended to other fields.
Both the ministry and many universities have been trying to limit access to certain courses since the mid-1990s. A succession of directives and regulations, however, have failed to clarify the situation for students and universities.
Thousands of students who were rejected on aptitude tests for degree courses with limited admittance appealed to regional tribunals while continuing to attend lectures as if they had enrolled.
In almost every case, the tribunals supported the students' demand to be admitted, basing their decision on a 1969 law, never repealed, that established the right of any school-leaver who has passed the maturita exam to enrol in any degree course in any of the 60 state universities.
The government's attempt to regulate admissions has inevitably drawn some fire. Critics have pointed out that it appears to be an attempt to limit access to the lucrative professions -although, in fact, only a minority of doctors and dentists have particularly high incomes - while allowing the humanities to continue to be dramatically overcrowded.
Student organisations have also voiced their dissent.