Rome relaxes its iron grip

June 12, 1998

ITALIAN universities must get to grips with their new-found academic freedom by this autumn, university minister Luigi Berlinguer has told rectors.

Under a 1997 law, state universities have gained the right to design their own undergraduate and postgraduate courses.

The reform is a dramatic break with the rigid centralism of the past, when programmes and curricula were laid down by the university ministry in Rome and uniformly applied.

In a circular to rectors, Professor Berlinguer said the time had come to put into practice the principle of academic autonomy.

He called for "greater academic efficiency with a knock-on reduction of drop-outs", which are running at a rate of 65 per cent. Another goal is to cut the average graduation age from 28 to 24.

Professor Berlinguer's idea is to put universities in competition with each other in attracting students and in obtaining financing.

Rectors are urged to submit their plans to the ministry and legislation will be passed in the coming months to ease the passage. Universities will be able to pick their own academics rather than having them distributed by the ministry.

Two new bodies are to evaluate teaching standards and the importance and finance-worthiness of research projects. Students will also be asked to evaluate teaching.

This reform is a revolution for the system, which developed on the principle that all universities should be a carbon copy, with identical standards and prestige. Degrees were supposed to have the same value no matter which university they came from.

Professor Berlinguer urged rectors to introduce an American-style credit system, giving students greater flexibility within a university or to switch from one to another.

He said courses should be "harmonised in the European context," and should "adapt to changing social and economic conditions".

He emphasised that these innovations must reflect the Lisbon Convention on the recognition of academic titles, Article 126 of the Maastricht Treaty, and the joint declaration on harmonisation by the university ministers of Italy, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Each degree course will have to include subjects from outside the discipline, full knowledge of another European language, and preferably the rudiments of a second foreign language, training in information technology, practical internships, and final exams.

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