The humanities faculty of the University of Bologna, which includes Umberto Eco's ground-breaking degree in communication sciences, is offering a cash reward of E854 (Pounds 500) to students who graduate within the nominal time-span of their degree course.
Walter Tega, dean of the faculty, said that, from next year, students who succeed will be reimbursed one year's fees.
The move aims to combat one of the great challenges of Italy's higher education system: the high proportion of students, known as fuori corso (literally "outside the course"), who are lagging behind the official timetable.
In 1998-99 more than 37 per cent of Italy's university students were fuori corso, a percentage that rises dramatically each year. It is quite common to take five, six, or seven years to complete what is officially rated as a four-year degree.
In humanities faculties in Italian universities, 50 per cent of students take at least seven years to complete a four-year degree course. In 1998, in the Bologna humanities faculty, only 4.8 per cent of the 1,235 students who graduated did so within the four-year time limit - or five for the communications sciences degree.
In addition to the economic incentive, the Bologna faculty has assigned 53 academics to act as tutors to assist students in their last year of exams and in preparing their degree theses.
Rodolfo Zich, rector of the Turin Polytechnic, said: "The fact that even the best students take longer than planned to graduate indicates that their workload has increased. In engineering, where the degree courses theoretically last four or five years, the real time needed is six or seven."
Under-secretary for universities Luciano Guerzoni, who for the past four years has masterminded a reform towards the so-called "three-plus-two" "European" degree based on credits, which takes effect next year, believes that "the reform will lighten work loads and thus eliminate fuori corso students who drag their academic careers beyond the age of 30".
Giacomo Vaciago, professor of political economics at Milan's Catholic University, agreed with the need for reform. "We have universities that each year increase programmes regardless of whether students graduate or not."
But, he added: "Now we are going to give a prize to those who pass with a green light instead of giving a fine to those who drive through red lights."