Italian politicians are concerned that the country's universities have missed out on the Chinese international student market.
During a state visit to China, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi called for more foreign students to be recruited by Italian universities after being struck by the fact that there are only 150 Chinese studying in Italy .
The number of foreign students enrolled at Italian universities has fallen from more than 3 per cent in the 1960s to 1.8 per cent today. Students from developing countries and other parts of Europe go elsewhere as Italy no longer offers easy admittance and generous scholarships.
Italy's 2002-03 figure of 1.8 per cent compares with 17 per cent for Switzerland, 12 per cent for Austria, 10.9 per cent for the UK, 9.6 per cent for Germany and 7.3 per cent for France.
Statistics confirm a north-south European divide, but Portugal and Spain beat Italy with 3 and 2.2 per cent respectively. Even Greece has overtaken Italy.
The University of Bologna attracts the most foreigners. Its rector, Pier Ugo Calzolari, is responsible for international relations in the Italian Rectors Conference. He said: "One problem (in attracting international students) is language. Italian is a language of extraordinary richness and beauty but it is rather marginal. In Germany, for instance, many courses are taught in English. Experiments in using English are starting in Italy, but we are still behind. The other obstacle is economic. Italy spends half the European average on higher education; clearly there is little scope for investments to attract foreigners."
Italy has no central state agency for students from abroad. Instead, an independent Catholic body, the Ufficio Centrale Studenti Esteri in Italia, assists those from developing countries and monitors the flow.
Giampiero Forcesi, a UCSEI director, said: "Because of the recent wave of terrorism and the war against illegal immigration, coming to study in Italy has become difficult for people from Africa, Asia and South America. They have to struggle through amazingly complex restrictions."
Italy's cash-strapped Government recently earmarked an extra e15 million (£10.5 million) for the co-financing of international projects and for the mobility of students, teachers and researchers.