The collapse of eastern Europe has shown state-run industry to be a failure, is it the same for state-run universities? THES looks at the competition. Higher education in Italy is dominated by the vast state system of 50-odd universities created at the end of the last century as part of the new nation state.
Today, a growing number of independent universities are meeting demand for private higher education. At the same time, the state universities are becoming more independent. Recent legislation has given them a degree of autonomy so that the once nominal fees have become substantial and there is a frantic search for corporate sponsors to finance projects.
The state system now has a total of 1.6 million students - only a third get a degree. It was conceived more than a hundred years ago for a literate middle and upper-middle class, but in the 1960s and 1970s with the establishment of the principle of a free university education for all school leavers, universities became increasingly overcrowded. This has prompted an ongoing reform coupled with an increasing demand for smaller and more efficient private universities.
Even within its monolithic state system Italy has a few independent universities. The best known is the Bocconi university in Milan, specialising in economic subjects and which for decades has had a reputation for turning out Italy's top businessmen and administrators. Outside Milan another university, the Castellanza, which teaches economics and engineering, has recently opened.
In Rome the LUISS university, with about 4,000 students, is linked to the Italian industrialists' confederation and specialises in economics, law and political science. The University of Urbino, with about 18,000 students, although technically a private university, is run by a consortium of local authorities.
The Catholic church also has a traditional role in higher education. The Universita Cattolica, with a total of about 30,000 students, has universities or medical schools in Milan, Brescia, Piacenza and Rome. Rome also has the Gregorian university which accepts lay students as well as clergy and offers courses broadly related to philosophy and theology.
Opus Dei, an international organisation closely linked to the church, set up Campus-Bio Medico, a medical school in Rome, in 1993.
"There is a rediscovery of the private university in Italy," explained information officer Teresa Falciani. "We aim to give a high-quality medical education that puts concern with the patient first, which does not happen in the vast state medical schools.
"At the moment we have about 150 students, but these will increase year by year as the students advance through the six-year course and specialisations. We plan to have about 600 students in five years time."
The independent universities have seen demands increasing steadily over recent years, in step with Italy's growing affluence and dissatisfaction with the services, if not with academic standards, offered by the state system.
A comparatively recent phenomenon is the small, American-inspired college. The best known are Johns Hopkins in Bologna, John Cabot University in Rome and the American University of Rome.
These are small institutions with only a few hundred students. They deal mainly in business-related subjects, international affairs and liberal arts. All report a marked increase in requests for admission.
The degrees they give are not recognised by the Italian state and therefore its graduates cannot complete for posts in the state administration, but they are valued by employers in the private sector. "Demand is growing steadily in particular from Italian and European students, while the number of Americans is stable," reports Francesca Gleason, admissions officer at John Cabot.
Parents and students are attracted by the international atmosphere, the sensitivity to job prospects, the hands-on attitude to teaching business administration, small classes and individual attention.
Fees for the American universities rage from about Pounds 6,000 a year for the two Rome institutions, up to about Pounds 12,000 for John Hopkins. This compares with an average of about Pounds 500 a year for the state universities. Evidently many families feel it is worth paying to have a fast and efficient university education and to have their children earning money earlier than they would have done through the time-wasting bureaucratic shambles and organisational chaos of the state system.
In numerical terms, Italy's private universities added together count for about 5 per cent of the system. But, given that only 30 per cent of the four or five years is theoretically needed, the proportion shoots up to 15- 20 per cent.