Rome. The Italian government is to call a halt to the creation of new universities and expansion of existing ones without proof of genuine demand.
It has also repeated its call for the break-up of mega-campuses such as Rome's La Sapienza University, with 190,000 students into smaller independent units.
Projects for expansion or research will only receive official funds if there is financial support from the universities themselves, possibly in conjunction with private or public sponsors.
The proposals are contained in a three-year education ministry plan to go before parliament. It introduces rules for drawing up three-year plans.
Undersecretary Luciano Guerzoni said: "We want to put a stop to the indiscriminate proliferation of universities and instead aim towards a rebalancing of the university network. We want to stop thinking in terms of quantitative growth and aim, instead, towards quality and rationalisation of the university system across the country as a whole."
The ministry said the system should result in more efficient universities and a reduction of the current dropout rate of almost 70 per cent. It added that a more rational distribution of academics will be one of the measures adopted.
For many years Italy has had the world's lowest birth rate. The population decline has only been offset by immigration. University enrolment, which grew dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, has begun to decrease slightly.
According to the ministry, the ruling on financing does not simply aim to lighten the load on the state, but also to "put the universities into closer contact with outside reality, in particular the job market, and to avoid waste and bureaucratic complications".
Italy now has a student population of about 1.6 million. Over the past 20 years many new universities have sprung up, some satisfying real demand but others to a great extent the result of local political and economic interests.
While some have remained very small, with only a few thousand students, universities such as La Sapienza, Naples, Turin, and Milan have become vast and unmanageable behemoths despite a 1993 law which limits a single university to 50,000 students.
In the past year university minister Luigi Berlinguer has repeatedly called on the mega-campuses to restructure themselves into a number of separate and more streamlined institutions.
Naples, Milan, Turin and Bologna have responded with projects for reorganisation into smaller units and in some cases have actually taken steps in that direction.
But La Sapienza, through its powerful rector, Giorgio Tecce, has done little beyond paying the minimum recognition to pressure for decentralisation.
The three-year plan also lays down new and more efficient rules for establishing future three-year plans. These will involve the Italian Rectors' Conference, the National Council of University Students, the regional authorities concerned, and the ministry itself. If these measures are not seriously crippled in their passage through parliament, they could well result in a gradual but lasting reform of Italy's university system.