Higher Education in Italy

Home to some the oldest universities in the world, Italy has a rich history in higher education. In particular, the University of Bologna, founded in 1088, is considered by many to be the oldest university in the world. Other longstanding institutions include the University of Padua, founded in 1222, and the University of Naples, founded in 1224.

The tradition of higher education in Italy dates to the time in medieval Europe when groups of students founded “universitates studiorum” in large cities such as Bologna and Paris, which quickly developed into cultural centers. Eventually, more “universitates studiorum” were established by popes, emperors, and kings. Then in 1861, after Italy’s unification, the Italian system became strongly centralized as the universities became state institutions under the control of public authority.

The foundational principles of the Italian higher education system are set down in the Italian Constitution, adopted in 1947. Article 33 states that “…art and science are free and the teaching thereof shall be free.” And although Article 33 also states that all institutions “have the right to establish their own regulations autonomously, within the limits set by national legislation,” Article 34 then makes clear that “all those who can prove the necessary competency and commitment have a right to pursue the highest levels of education, regardless of their financial means.”

In 1999, a significant reform process began to change the Italian system of higher education. This reform process marked the first steps towards the decentralization of the university sector and set up the Ministry for Universities and Research (Ministero dell’Universita e della Ricerca Scientifica e Tecnologica – MURST), an independent body that asserted autonomy in university management, financial and budgetary issues, teaching, and research. This was not only to harmonize European degree structures (under the Bologna Process), but also to promote the goals for the European Higher Education Area in 2010 (promoting international student mobility, free circulation of labor, and international academic recognition).

To meet these goals, Italy’s higher education system has been divided in two distinct sectors: the university and non-university sector, with the latter mainly comprised of arts, music and language training, and secondary education and training (Istruzione e Formazione tecnica superiore).

These reforms have contributed to increasing higher education rates since 2000, as seen in the statistics below:

  • The percentage of young people (under 18) in Italy who can expect to enter university-level higher education program over their lifetime increased from 39% in 2000 to 49% in 2010
  • The percentage of young people expected to graduate from such programs over their lifetime increased even faster, from 19% in 2000 to 32% in 2010
    • Of which 27% are expected to graduate before the age of 30
  • The percentage of Italians with university-level education has increased from generation to generation, from 10% among 55-64 year-olds to 20% among 25-34 year-olds

Students typically enter university at age 19 in Italy, one year later than in most EU countries. Following the Bologna Process, universities are organized in a first cycle of 3 years (“Laurea di Primo Livello”), followed by a secondary cycle of two years (“Laurea Specialistica” and similar qualifications). Third cycle doctoral programs (“Dottorato di Ricerca” and similar qualifications) usually require an additional three years of intensive study and independent research.

All universities must follow the same rules regarding a range of decisions (degree conferred, curriculum, etc.) in order to be accredited to deliver a university degree.

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