Italy appears to be back-pedalling on university reforms that would put it at the forefront of European harmonisation through the Bologna process.
Education minister Letizia Moratti has reportedly told the government coalition that the adoption of a three-plus-two-year degree system will go ahead in scientific and technical fields in Italian universities, where it is already widely implemented, but that it may be waived in some or all of the humanities.
A few months ago, Ms Moratti had indicated that this policy might be put forward.
At the end of March, Giuseppe Valditara, responsible for the education policy of the ex-fascist Alleanza Nazionale party, which is a partner in Silvio Berlusconi's coalition government, told the media that Ms Moratti had assured the prime minister that she was taking steps towards the reinstatement of four-year degrees in some faculties.
A three-plus-two-year degree system was agreed at the 1999 Bologna conference. It was to be established as a cornerstone of the European higher education area by the end of the decade.
Luigi Berlinguer, higher education minister from 1996 to 1998, had first proposed the reform. He said that the proposal not to include the humanities meant "the process of restoration of the past continues". He said: "There is evidence of the progressive success of the three-plus-two formula in other countries. There is the risk of inflicting a heavy blow to Italy's universities before we have had time to observe the long-term benefits of the reform."
Professor Berlinguer's successor, Ortensio Zecchino, who was minister when Italy signed the Bologna declaration, took a more relaxed position. "So far, this is just talk. There has been no official statement from the prime minister. I believe that Ms Moratti is periodically bombarded by the more conservative sectors of the humanities, by academics who fear change.
"There is resistance to a reform that threatens certain carefully honed equilibriums of academic prestige. Admittedly in some cases the reform has been badly and confusedly implemented, but it is not three-plus-two that is to blame."
Fabio Roversi Monaco, former rector of Bologna University, hosted the 1999 Bologna conference. He noted that although the declaration aimed to create educational uniformity in Europe, it respected the needs of different academic fields and of different countries.
"In my opinion, the passage to three-plus-two was rushed through too quickly. Ms Moratti's idea is to allow three-plus-two to be reviewed in certain faculties. This could be a great opportunity. There is no question of throwing it out, but simply of adapting it to varying needs."