Italian university minister Ortensio Zecchino, who has managed to hold on to his job during the country's latest political crisis, has announced details of "three-plus-two European" degrees. The degrees are a key element in a radical reform of the higher education system.
In Italy, the shortest degree courses last four years, with additional years for engineering, architecture and medicine. The new degree structure is part of a plan aimed at streamlining the sector and reducing the 60 per cent drop-out rate.
When Mr Zecchino announced the degree structure to the country's 60-odd universities, he emphasised that the three-year degree should on no account be seen as a second-rate qualification.
After almost two years of advising universities to prepare for the new regime, the three-plus-two degree will finally swing into action for many universities in the autumn. The remaining universitites will have to introduce the degree by the 2001-02 academic year.
A basic degree will take three years. Second-stage "specialisation degrees" will take a further two years, and "specialisation diplomas" another two years. Those who wish to study for a "research doctorate" will do two years in addition to this.
Students will accumulate credits towards a degree in each course. As universities become increasingly autonomous, each institution will be free, within a common framework, to design its own courses. Where applicable, this will involve training in local firms to forge links between higher education and the job market.
The ministry framework establishes 41 first-stage degrees and 104 second-stage "specialisation degrees".
Among other courses, the second stage offers specialisations in landscape architecture, environmental engineering, environmental science and various branches of biotechnology. Most of these were experimental courses that, under the reform, become fully fledged specialisations.
Mr Zecchino's purpose is clear: to increase productivity and reduce drop-out rates while turning out graduates better suited to the job market. For better or worse, the new structure will produce graduates with a more utilitarian and perhaps narrower education, but answering more closely the needs of employers.
Mr Zecchino admitted that a few professions would require the second-stage degree. But he said he hoped to limit this to as few professions as possible.
"It would be a disaster if, one after another, all the professions called for five years at university. The purpose of the reform is to get our young people into the job market earlier, without handicapping them vis-a-vis their colleagues from other countries."
Talks are under way between the university ministry, other ministries and professional associations, many of which will doubtless resist the efforts to make access easier.