Ministry presents three-year plan for universities

Italian officials are finalising a major funding and standards strategy for universities, which they hope will be enacted despite the country’s endemic political instability. The plan has been developed by the Ministry of Education, University and Research and will span three years, 2013-15, setting academic standards for both state and non-state universities.

It also seeks to further internationalise higher education.

Assuming that overall 2013 higher education funding is maintained next year, the programme will spend up to €167 million (US$230 million) in 2014.

The plan has two main objectives. First, it provides financial incentives to universities to improve the overall quality of their academic offerings. Second, it encourages the fusion of smaller universities with bigger ones, resulting in cost savings and ultimately a reduction in the national number of institutions.

Universities will make applications for additional funding under the scheme, which will make extra public money available to universities that prove to be more efficient and boost the quality of their academic programmes.

Its goal is to make rationalise the entire university system in Italy and make it more efficient, containing costs and promoting an international approach to education that better prepares students for the labour market.

The exact amount to be spent will depend on the quality of university funding applications.

The ministry confirmed to University World News that officials were making minor adjustments to the plan before a final draft was presented to the Corte dei Conti – a state institution that safeguards public finance and makes sure government programmes stay within the law – which must give it final approval.

Critically, this bypasses Italy’s fractious parliament, which could have delayed approval amid political rows.

Ministry officials hope to get the final go-ahead in the coming weeks.

This would give universities 45 days to make funding applications under the scheme, enabling the ministry to evaluate them by 31 December, allocating funding for the 2013-14 academic year.

The details

Looking at the detail of the plan, additional public funding will be awarded each year to universities for projects and academic programmes reflecting the following guidelines:
  • • More student-oriented services, among them orientation programmes for first-year students, as well as services during their studies and after graduation aimed at increasing student retention and completion and encouraging entrance into the workforce after graduation.
  • • More internships, both in Italy and abroad.
  • • Programmes supporting student mobility, such as more opportunities for Italian students to study abroad and more foreign student enrolments.
  • • The digitalisation of university administration processes and bureaucracy.
  • • More courses and modules in foreign languages.
  • • Increasing the capacity of each university to attract more professors and lecturers from outside the university.
  • • Promoting academic collaborations with foreign universities and staff.
  • • Raising academic standards at non-state universities.
A key aspect of the plan, however, is the resizing of Italy’s notoriously costly and unproductive university system through financial incentives that support ‘territorial integration’: universities will be encouraged to either fuse or work with other higher education institutions in the same or neighbouring regions by creating ‘federations’ to integrate courses and services, to eliminate unnecessary costs.

In this light, the ministry will propose a cap on opening new state-run universities, keeping the number to the current 68.

Critics and supporters

It has not, however, put the same limit on privately run universities, and this is a cause for concern, said Domenico Pantaleo, secretary general of the country's main education union FLI-CGIL.

Pantaleo told University World News that all the plan did was increase competition between bigger and smaller public universities, vying for already low levels of state funding, as well as creating imbalances between private universities – both existing and future ones – and public universities.

“[The plan] operates according to an ‘old-fashioned logic’ that will further create inequality in an already distressed system, in which state universities are suffering from four straight years of funding cuts,” he argued.

Like many, Pantaleo believes that the country’s university system needs to be streamlined and modernised, but thinks the plan fails to adequately take certain needs into account.

“It seems to place emphasis on attracting more foreign students and lecturers and introducing additional student-centred services but without providing funding for essential services like affordable student housing, which is severely lacking in Italy and is essential to the pursuit of a degree, especially for foreign students and Italian students studying far from home.”

Conversely Andrea Cammelli, Bologna University professor and director of AlmaLaurea, an inter-university consortium bridging universities and the labour market, liked the general layout of the three-year plan: “My overall impression is positive.”

Cammelli explained that since the first set of university reforms were introduced in 1999, the university dropout rate in Italy has declined. More students are graduating on time; class attendance is higher; there are more opportunities for internships; and students are speaking more foreign languages.

The new three-year plan seemed to take these things into account and build on them, he observed.

“Among the positive aspects is the emphasis on the internationalisation of universities which is fundamental in our day and age; there is also an emphasis on internships, which improve student employability after graduation; and it places importance on more effective orientation programmes that help students choose a correct course of study, essential to reducing early dropout,” he stated.

But according to Cammelli, the plan should better reflect the needs of students who work full-time or part-time while pursuing a degree, “which is the case for circa 70% of the national student body”, and it should also seek to promote the best students so that Italy does not lose them in the country’s record levels of ‘brain drain’.

Like Pantaleo, Cammelli also believes Italy’s public universities face under-funding and he expresses doubts as to whether the guidelines set out in the three-year plan can realistically be achieved.

“I have already spoken to [Education] Minister Carrozza about my concerns over the insufficient amount of public funding for universities. Italy spends less on higher education and research and development than other European countries and, despite the current era of austerity, we need to rethink this.”