Italy's rectors have published a 52-page white paper appealing to the government for more resources.
On the State of Italian Universities: The Charter of Rights and Duties in the Year of Change also details both the shortcomings and potential of the nation's university system, as well as its "duties" and "rights" as seen by the rectors' conference.
The paper cites the 60 per cent dropout rate among Italian students and sets out a list of aims for Italy's universities in an effort to better serve the needs of students and the job market.
Presented in Rome by Luciano Modica, rector of Pisa University and president of the rectors' conference, and by the rectors of Ancona and Siena universities, it points out that Italy's universities receive about €1.9 billion (£1.2 billion) a year less from the state than universities in France, the United Kingdom and Germany, or 0.7 per cent of gross national product compared with 0.9 per cent.
Professor Modica said: "We want the government (and) the nation as a whole to realise that the university system is a resource of strategic importance for the country's future. We should not be thinking in terms of 'costs', but of 'investments'."
He said the "shameful" dropout rate peaked in the early 1990s at 68 per cent and was now down to below 60 per cent. "We want to reduce it to 30 or 20 per cent over the next ten years."
Professor Modica admitted: "This is not just a question of spending; the universities are also to blame for having, in the past, developed to serve the needs of academics rather than students. But over the past few years' this has changed and must move further towards a student-centred system. We would like, for instance, to be able to discipline academics who do not do their jobs properly and reward those who do. Under Italian law this is not possible. New legislation which would have given us some scope in this direction will not be approved before general elections in May. Hopefully the new parliament will see to it."
Students take on average seven and a half years to graduate. "The new, 3-plus-2-year degree system is forcing universities to review their degree programmes, and we (the rectors) are trying to convince the professors to establish programmes which can be completed realistically in the nominal time," Professor Modica said.
Only two days before the rectors presented the report, semiologist Umberto Eco suggested that one way to improve standards would be to increase fees for everyone and use the money to provide more scholarships.