Access to Italy's universities may be limited by a new law which would make admission to degree courses dependent on available places and, in some cases, a specific aptitude test.
Until recently, all departments of all state universities were open to anyone with a secondary school diploma.
It is only over the past three years, in spite of bitter opposition from student organisations, that some departments have set a maximum number on a first-come, first-served basis. But rejected students who have appealed to the courts have all been admitted, since there is no law that permits the restriction of admission.
The ministry for universities is considering legislation to regularise the existing restrictions, but students have voiced their opposition. The legal confusion is further fuelled by the fact that, under the recently established principle of autonomy for each university, it is by no means clear whether the ministry can decide on limiting access.
But, for the second year running, the number of new students has fallen - a total drop of about 9 per cent in only two years. For the 1995/96 academic year enrolments declined by about 3 per cent compared to 1994/95 when numbers of new students in state universities fell, for the first time ever, by almost 6 per cent.
This year's statistics confirm that today more Italian women than men are entering university, a trend common in most of Europe but which goes against the stereotype of stay-at-home Italian women.
The latest statistics, which are preliminary, may not necessarily mean that fewer Italians are actually going to university. Only 30 per cent of students who begin a university education complete it. And many take longer than the theoretical four or five years of their degree course.
Sharp hikes in fees, from about the equivalent of Pounds 150 in 1993 to Pounds 400-650 today, may have discouraged some of the "dilettante" students, so there may in fact be a greater proportion of full-timers. This can only be confirmed by future statistics.
At the same time, Italy's few private universities have grown. This, however, is a drop in the ocean compared to the 1.6 million students in more than 60 state universities, and only accounts for a few hundred extra students between 1993 and 1996.