Italian universities are pioneering the so-called European system of degree courses, consisting of a three-year degree followed by a two-year specialisation degree, as laid down in the 1998 Sorbonne declaration and ratified by European higher education ministers in last year's Bologna declaration.
Italy's deadline for full transition from the old system of four-year-degrees is the 2001-02 academic year. With the necessary legislation already passed, faculties in many universities are forging ahead and gearing this year's degree courses to the new credits-based system. The rest have until the next academic year to follow suit. And all must use the credits system to facilitate the transition.
Ministers have come and gone in the past five years, but Luciano Guerzoni, under-secretary for universities, has remained in his post.He will oversee the introduction of the new degree structure, which he helped create.
"This is a very important, very basic revolution of our university system," Mr Guerzoni said. "What I have been working towards for almost five years is finally materialising. In many universities and faculties there is optimism and enthusiasm, in some there is resistance to change. Certainly the transition will not be easy and will involve a great deal of extra work for administrators and academics."
A sum of €138,650,000 (£80 million) has been earmarked to pay subsidies to academics who put in extra time to effect the complex transition. "This year's first-year students will automatically become second-year students under the new system in 2001-02," Mr Guerzoni explained. "This year's second and third-year students will have the option of finishing their degrees under the old or the new system."
The universities will try to encourage students to switch to the new formula to complete the change as swiftly as possible. "However, a student beginning the fourth year in autumn 2001 may wish to graduate in summer 2002, with the old four-year degree, rather than doing another year for the new five-year specialisation degree. With credits there will be total flexibility."
But some academics feel that a reduction from four to three years will lower standards.
Mr Guerzoni said that enthusiasm for reform was greater in northern universities than in the south - "but there are many exceptions: places such as Lecce and Catania in the south have embraced the reform." It had generally been warmly welcomed in engineering and technical fields, the minister added.
"In any case, the law has been approved by parliament and as of next year all Italy's universities will have to conform," he said.
"Given the autonomy that each university now enjoys, it will simply be a question of how smoothly the transition takes place.
"The fact that universities are now competing for students and for funding will certainly be of encouragement."