Italy's six top higher education institutes, catering for an elite of graduate and postgraduate students, have formed a permanent national network of cooperation and joint ventures in teaching and research.
This will include inter-school courses, exchanges of students and lecturers, and the hiring of academics and experts, mainly from abroad, to teach only in the new "elite circuit".
The six schools, all part of Italy's state university system and each linked to a state university, are the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna and the Scuola Normale Superiore, both in Pisa, the SISSA in Trieste, Catania's Scuola Superiore, the ISUFI in Lecce, and the IUSS in Pavia.
The pact, signed at the university ministry in Rome at the end of January, aims also to develop and intensify collaboration with similar institutions in other countries.
Luciano Guerzoni, under-secretary for universities, dismissed the idea that this could herald a two-tier system for both academics and students - a dichotomy of overcrowded, mediocre-quality universities for the masses, and special schools in which a small elite of high-flying students is nurtured by equally high-flying academics. Such a concept would clash radically with the egalitarian foundations of Italy's university system.
Mr Guerzoni said: "The development of these schools, three of which have a long tradition and three of which are relatively recent, fits in with the overall reform of the entire university system."
Franco Pavoncello, dean of Rome's John Cabot University, said: "Special schools will force everyone else to roll up their sleeves and get to work."
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