Italy's universities are witnessing the sharpest drop ever in first-year enrolments. New students for the 1996/97 academic year fell by 3 per cent compared with 1995/96, when, for the first time since the second world war, there had already been a substantial decrease in first-year enrolments.
As the lingering economic recession shows no sign of improving and unemployment is over 12 per cent, more and more young people are turning to fields that offer the best chances of solid employment.
The steady decline may be expected to smooth the path of a planned package of reforms of the centralised state system, which includes more than 60 universities. The changes, promoted by university minister Luigi Berlinguer, aim to improve efficiency and productivity and to introduce "programmed admissions" in certain fields.
The sharpest drop was recorded in law (9 per cent) followed by the sciences (6 per cent), engineering (3 per cent) and political science (2 per cent). Enrolments were up in agrarian sciences by 14 per cent, and in medicine and dentistry by 2 per cent.
There was also a marked shift away from the very large and generally long-established universities towards the smaller provincial institutions.
In ten of Italy's largest universities, Rome, Naples, Milan, Bari, Turin, Padua, Pavia, Trieste, Florence and Urbino, the number of first-year students plunged by 7.7 per cent. Only Bologna recorded an increase - but of only 0.2 per cent - due to enrolments in various diploma courses.
"We notice that students are turning away from the traditional fields, like law," said a university ministry official. "There is new interest in degree courses in new sub-sections of the traditional fields, which are often offered in the smaller universities. An example is 'Agrarian science and techniques', which in a number of universities jumped from 2,623 enrolments to 3,392."
The decrease in the popularity of law degrees and political science may be explained by the fact that these were the classic degrees, considered easier than economics, chosen by students hoping for a secure and easy job in Italy's massive, overstaffed and notoriously inefficient state bureaucracy. But the current policy of slimming down the civil service has drastically reduced the demand for new graduates.
The survey of the ten major universities gives a more detailed breakdown of student preferences. Enrolments fell across the spectrum of the humanities, led by a 22 per cent drop in psychology, which had boomed during the 1970s and 1980s. Foreign languages and literature, European integration notwithstanding, fell by 8 per cent.
Surprisingly, engineering, until recently considered a path to certain employment, also dropped, by 3.8 per cent. Perhaps less surprisingly, the number of new would-be architects fell by 17 per cent. The economic recession and Italy's legal obstacles to demolition and reconstruction have brought building work almost to a standstill with most architecture graduates competing desperately for low-prestige renovation and decoration.
The areas in which the number of new students increased were pharmaceutical sciences (up 19 per cent), veterinary sciences (8.7 per cent), farming (7.7 per cent), economics (4.9 per cent) and medicine and dentistry (1.4 per cent). All these represent fields connected to solid remunerative professions which in a period of economic slump should guarantee employment. Interestingly, medicine increased only slightly because Italy has a vast surplus of doctors and unemployment is high, while graduates in pharmaceutical sciences are sure of employment in pharmacies where earnings are high.
The fact that fewer young Italians are beginning a university career may partly be due to the fact that in the past many simply "signed up" without very serious intentions of obtaining a degree within the established number of years. Being registered as a student has been a classic ploy to delay national service in the armed forces.
Only about 30 per cent of those who enrolled ever graduated, and most of those who succeeded did so well beyond the theoretical time. In recent years, however, fees have increased sharply and this may have discouraged some students from signing up. Whether this is the case will only become clear in four years time, when the first 1996/97 first-year students start emerging from the universities.