Italian state universities are radically redesigning degree courses to harmonise with the rest of Europe and strengthen the drive to greater university autonomy.
A three-year "foundation" degree based on credits will be introduced followed by further specialisation. The credit system will permit the creation of a common first year for two or more degree courses, more cross-faculty teaching and courses.
Higher education has been rigidly centralised, with degrees based on set exams and a thesis with little variation from one university to another.
The principle of university autonomy, established a few years ago, in conjunction with a revamped degree structure, will allow each university to design courses on the basis of regional characteristics, student demand, collaboration with local firms, and competition between universities.
"This is a radical revolution," sais Luciano Guerzoni, under-secretary for universities. "Only those Italian universities that already have experience of international relations, through Socrates, Erasmus, and so on, have some familiarity with the credit system.
"By 1999-2000 we hope to have both the credit system and the new architecture of the courses fully operational in all the state universities," he added.
Professor Guerzoni, who teaches ecclesiastical law at Modena University, has been undersecretary since April 1996 and is continuing the university reform of former education minister Luigi Berlinguer.
Each university is free to design its degree courses, incorporating some compulsory national standards decided with rectors, academic and faculty councils. "We hope to be able to publish the regulations in December or January," Professor Guerzoni said.
Most rectors are enthusiastic that the new system will allow them much greater flexibility and the possibility of streamlining degree courses and reducing the massive drop-out rate and the extra years that most Italian students take to obtain a degree.
But there is some resistance from the professori, who have been virtually free of any control, supervision, discipline or objective evaluation of their worth.
"The new structure and credits system seeks to improve the efficiency of higher education," said Professor Guerzoni.
"Therefore each professor will have 'x' credits for his course, which will be an objective measure of its importance within the degree programme. A professor teaching a minor course, worth only a few credits, will no longer be able to impose huge essays and a very difficult, time-consuming examination.
"Lecturers are having to face the fact that the number of credits for a specific course is a measure of the workload of the student, not of the prestige of the academic teaching the course."