Grapevine guide to a spread of excellence

November 8, 1996

Italy has no independent organisation for evaluating universities in terms of standards and productivity. What is known about universities and single departments is the result of direct knowledge, established reputation and hearsay, writes Paul Bompard.

Italy's higher education system is highly centralised. Its 62 universities offer theoretically uniform academic standards.

In most fields the syllabus is established by the ministry of universities and scientific research. The ministry also assigns lecturers to jobs. However, a radical reform is under way which should give each university a much greater degree of autonomy. This would give universities the freedom to hire their own academics and deploy their own resources. In time this may lead to universities developing more individual identities.

While standards are theoretically equal, in practice individual universities are renowned for particular areas of teaching and research. The Turin Polytechnic, for instance, is considered to be Italy's most important citadel of science, while Milan University is known for architecture and some areas of the humanities.

A leading higher education commentator, Raffaele Simone says: "No Italian university can be considered globally."

Milan, Florence and Rome universities are known for their excellence in philosophy, the Milan and Turin polytechnics for engineering, Naples, Siena and Bologna universities for law, Rome, Milan and Bologna for economics, and Rome, Milan and Bologna for physics.

"But no single Italian university," says Professor Simone, "can be described as efficient and of good quality across the academic spectrum." A case apart, according to Professor Simone, might be the Universita Normale di Pisa. This is considered something of an elite institution and is the only university which requires an entrance exam. But the Normale only covers philology, philosophy, physics and mathematics. Milan's Bocconi, a private university, is generally considered to be the best place in Italy for studying economics.

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