Bologna University was founded in 1088 and is usually regarded as the oldest university in the world. Several other Italian universities, notably Naples and Padua, date back to the 13th century. The modern history of the Italian university dates from 1859, when the Casati educational law laid down the fundamental characteristics of a modern university. Universities were charged with a double goal of preparing youth (which until after World War II mostly meant men) for technically skilled work in the public sphere and private professions, and with “maintaining and nurturing” scientific and literary culture. There were to be five faculties: theology, law, medicine, natural sciences, and arts and letters. With the exception of reforms introduced by the philosopher Giovanni Gentile in his 1923 educational act, this structure remained the basis of Italian higher education until the 1960s, although new faculties, such as engineering, were added, and the number of students gradually rose.
   Nevertheless, in the mid-1960s, Italian universities were hierarchical, elitist institutions lacking modern facilities such as study rooms, sports halls, dormitories, and scholarships. The curriculum was outdated and was taught by learned but distant professors whose hostility to innovation was legendary. When the prosperous baby boom generation began to reach the university system in the mid-1960s, the by-now crowded universities proved unable to adapt and entered into the most prolonged crisis of higher education (from 1966 to 1978) anywhere in the advanced industrial world.
   In 1980, when the wave of protest had finally ebbed, a major reform of the universities was introduced. The PhD was finally introduced, the professoriate was split into three categories (researcher, associate professor, and full professor), and departments were introduced and given the task of conducting research. A ministry for research and the universities was set up in 1987. Universities nevertheless remained highly centralized, with promotion taking place through national public examinations and with curricular development being tightly controlled by the ministry. Despite some attempts to provide more autonomy in these areas, Italian universities remain among the most state-controlled in the world.
   In 1999 the traditional four-year, master’s-equivalent degree, or laurea, was abolished and replaced with a new system of a three-year diploma followed by a two-year “specialist” degree. The aim of the reform was to increase the number of people graduating with at least three years’ college in their early or midtwenties (completion rates had been among the worst in Europe), but in this respect it has failed. The reform has been botched, completion rates have not significantly increased, and serious questions have been raised about the quality of the new degrees, with many people asserting that they have turned the university into an esamificio (exam mill).
   Italy’s universities are today in an authentic crisis. The country spends less on research and higher education than almost any other industrial country and spends the money badly; there is a brain drain of frightening proportions as young researchers flee to the United States, Great Britain, northern Europe, and other more progressive systems; and professors are underpaid and too often unproductive. Teaching is old-fashioned and often neglected by the senior professors. Yet reform seems distant, and some obvious changes, such as increasing fees, would arouse passionate opposition among both faculty and students. A measure of Italy’s backwardness is to be found in the international rankings published by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Only one Italian university made the top 100 in 2006 (La Sapienza in Rome), and it was last among this elite group. Only five others made the top 200. European universities fared poorly by comparison with American institutions in this ranking, but Britain, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium all scored better (in some cases, far better) than Italy.
   See also IL Sessantotto

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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