English-only postgraduate courses at Milan Polytechnic spark protest

The Politecnico di Milano, one of Italy’s leading technical universities, has announced that from the beginning of the 2014 academic year, all MSc and PhD courses will be taught exclusively in English.

But some of the institution’s professors oppose the switch to English from Italian, and 285 have signed a petition to the rector.

While the university already offers several courses in English, as do other Italian institutions, the move to drop Italian entirely in favour of English is a first among Italy’s public universities. The institution will also be investing €3.2 million (US$4.1 million) to attract faculty including 15 lecturers, 30 to 35 post-doctorates and 120 visiting professors.

The decision is part of the the university’s internationalisation strategy, which has seen a 40% increase in requests for admission by foreign students this year. Foreign nationals comprise around 10% of Milano's 37,000 students, and the majority (55%) come from non-English speaking countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, Vietnam, Turkey and Iran.

This has not mollified the protesting professors, however. In their petition document, An Appeal in Defence of Freedom in Tuition, they claim that the imposition of English in an Italian university is unconstitutional and illegitimate.

According to petition instigator Professor Emilio Matricciani, “the point is not English”.

He said in a radio interview: “The point is that English is being imposed on students as a kind of linguistic dictatorship…and what we might call ‘low-definition’ English (the English of conferences and so on) is also being confused with the ‘high-definition’ language of teaching.”

But Rector Giovanni Azzone dismissed the professors’ protest, saying it would not affect the decision.

"We are about 1,400 professors with 1,400 different ways of thinking,” he told University World News.

“This decision was agreed on by a wide majority at the governance level [which includes many academics]...It clearly requires an extra effort on the part of lecturers, and some have embraced this challenge, while others have not,” he added.

Azzone said the increase in English teaching offered a double benefit to students, directly by increasing graduate employment prospects and indirectly by exposing students to different cultures and communicating through an ‘international’ language with people from all over the world.

“We are proud of our Italian roots, which we consider an added value for all foreign students deciding to complete education in our university,” Azzone said. “Nevertheless, as a technical-scientific university, we cannot underestimate the international context.”

The institution’s doctoral students have also embraced the change. Roberto Maffei, president of the PhD students’ association said PhD students were overwhelmingly in favour.

"What is the point of publishing research in a language that no-one else can read? We need to communicate not only with native English speakers but also with Turks, Iranians, Chinese…As far as I’m concerned this change can only be positive,” he said.