Italian universities are showing signs of backing away from their strategy of developing industrially-orientated undergraduate courses in favour of a general education followed by specialist postgraduate work.
Roberto Schmid, rector of Pavia University and one of five members of the standing conference of Italian rectors who last week visited their Scottish counterparts, told a seminar at Heriot-Watt University that there had been growing links between higher education and industry to meet the needs of a rapidly changing society.
The conference of rectors had signed a special agreement with the Italian association of private industries, and industry had been involved in helping set up courses at the three-year diploma and six-year laurea level.
But although new programmes had been set up, and the range of options in existing programmes expanded, current thinking had changed and this line would possibly be no longer followed, Professor Schmid said.
"Some universities in Italy are looking into the possibility of going back to the tradition of a basic methodological training in the laurea programmes and offering the opportunity of a postgraduate specialisation by means of special programmes."
Short, flexible one or two-year courses could be defined by industry's needs, and could also be partially funded by industry, he said. Professional updating in the various disciplines could be tackled through continuing education, for which there was a growing demand.
But Professor Schmid admitted that research links with industry were "extremely weak", as was technology transfer. Income generated from industrial contracts reached 10 per cent in only a few polytechnics, with an average below 5 per cent.
Academics sometimes felt the projects proposed by industry were not of sufficiently high quality, and salaries for applied work did not compensate for disruption to their careers in higher education.
The rectors and the association of private industries had now set up a commission to investigate how links could be strengthened. Research links were generally with a single company, and were not generally genuinely collaborative.
But one outstanding example of a successful link was the joint laboratory for research in photonics set up by the Pirelli Company and the Polytechnic of Milan.
This co-operative model should be encouraged, Professor Schmid said, particularly through science parks about which Italian universities could learn much from other countries.