Innovation in the Italian University System

Francesca Farabollini and Maurizio Franzini

The notion of “the University” can’t be regarded as a unitary concept, even within a European context. To begin with there are several different models of reference, organisation and goals. Over the last ten years many European countries have instigated changes in the university. While the reason for such changes is often given as a attempt to reform ill-functioning areas within the universities the underlying factors involved are more generally social and economic.

There are many signs of educational crisis in Italy and a number of practical reasons for introducing innovation within the context of the University. However, while it is true that a number of serious areas of weakness demand reorganisation, this does tend to overshadow the more profound reasons for the present crisis, a situation that is not confined to Italy alone.

Higher education in Italy (at least until now) has been confined to the University alone and to a single type of degree. The degree itself can be of variable duration, between four to six years, according to subject. Occasionally this degree is followed by a doctorate, but this is of recent innovation and has not been fully consolidated into the Italian higher educational system. Unlike other countries an intermediate level of education has been absent in the Italian system. This has produced the paradoxical situation in which the training for a magistrate does not differ from that of a clerk in public administration.

While the underlying structure of the university system has remained unchanged, over the last thirty years the Italian system shifted dramatically from one offering higher education to a limited number of students to a form of mass education. Student access is totally free within this centralised state-run system. Students can enter any faculty, and from any type of high school, and with very low level of taxation. On the other hand, the efficiency of the university system has been very poor. One aspect of this is the very long average time required to complete a degree and the high drop-out rate, particularly in the first two years of entry into a university. During the sixties and seventies there was a “boom” of students entering University. A further peak occurred in the nineties with a total of 1,677,000 students attending university in 1998 (against 450.000 in 1967 and 1.000.000 in 1978). On the other hand only 15% of students graduating in 1998 completed their degree within the normal time period. What is more, a high percentage (around 40%) of students are in a position known as “fuori corso”. This means that even after the normal period required for a degree has passed they continue to remain officially registered as students within the university for several years to come. During this period they may or may not choose to take additional courses and sit exams so that it could be as long as ten years before they finally obtain a degree.

It was in this overall context that a structural reform recently set in motion in Italy to which all universities must conform within the next year. This is also designed to meet the need for an intermediate level of education. In future there will be two types of degree of different levels and duration. These will be of 3 and 5 years respectively and offered within the one University institution. In other words, Italian universities will fulfil a two-fold function. Interestingly, the two degrees are not independent of each other, but are ” in series”. The second degree, of 5 years, is created by adding 2 years to a first 3 years degree, which is, or should be, more professionally oriented. The doctorate, which will follow on from the second degree, will also have greater importance.

In arriving at this solution Italy did not make a choice between two different models of higher education: One involving cultural education directed to an elite, and the other being a form of mass education, professionally oriented, and directed to a large number of students. Rather the two systems appear to be present within the same institution.

Above all the present reform of the Italian university system is aimed at improving efficiency. At the same time it is supposed to adapt to the demands of society, and in particular of businesses and other enterprises, through the adoption of a more professionally oriented first degree.

One of the main influences that has shaped this university reform has been the lack of contact and response between universities and the world of business and commerce. Indeed, the basic principles of freedom and independence, which originally gave rise to the university in the Middle Age, were gradually replaced by a real “separation” from society and a lack of concern for its needs.

The inspiration of the present reform, towards a more competitive business model, is evident both from the new principles being adopted and the strategies and methods that are being employed. (This can also be seen in the new fashion for terminology within the university.) This innovation is based upon two principles. The first is that of the autonomy of individual universities instead of the previous system of centralisation which was on one hand invasive yet also protective. The other key principle is flexibility.

On the methodological side, a quality assurance system has been introduced for the first time in Italy, as well as a credit system. Both of these measures are consistent with the principles outlined above. It is these elements which will now form the basis for competition between Italian universities, a situation that will be analysed later on in this article.

This enterprise model is not, however, being applied in a uniform and coherent way to university reform. One important example of this is the value of the degree itself. Unlike other countries, a degree in Italy is legally recognised throughout the country. It is valid for positions in the civil service and professions, irrespective of the university in which the student graduated or its particular prestige. This form of centralism, which is openly contradictory to the principles of competition, is at present being maintained within the new, reformed system. This is probably a strategic choice made through a variety of contingencies. However, the tendency implicit in the whole nature of Italian university reform will certainly lead to the final elimination of the “legal value” of the academic degree.

Even if the present reform is not entirely consistent a great deal of hope is being given to the idea of competition between universities (a term that is increasingly being used by a number of commentators). Already steps have been taken in this direction, by giving a greater degree of autonomy to Italian Universities, both financially and with respect to the academic programs they offer. Nevertheless this is still far from being a fully-fledged competitive system and a number of obstacles must first be removed both on the supply and the demand side.

With regard to the former, while in the new system individual universities now enjoy a degree of freedom in the make up of the academic programs they offers, this is not unlimited. What is more, a number of barriers exist that make it difficult for new Universities to enter the market. This forms a serious impediment to a full competitive approach.

The more serious limitations are located on the “demand side” of the market. As previously noted, the so-called “legal value” of the degree has not yet been abolished. This implies that, at least as far as public service is concerned, there is no possibility for discriminating between prospective workers and clerks on the basis of the university from which they obtained their degree. This form of legal smoothing out of differences has the effect of tempering the stimulus on the part of the students to search of the “best” University, a factor that greatly weakens the strength of competition.

Apart from these factors or weaknesses, particular to the Italian university system, we would like to extend the scope of this analysis by asking if a well-structured competition system is in fact really desirable. Here are some basic questions:

  • Will the competition model provide an adequate solution to current deficiencies?
  • Will it give rise to other problems?
  • Can competition achieve good results by operating in a kind of institutional vacuum or are other types of institution needed?

Let us attempt some brief answers to these questions. From economic theory we know that, in general, competition can lead to higher efficiency. More precisely, in a competitive market it is possible to get products of higher quality at the same cost, or alternatively, products of the same quality at lower cost. (It should be added that in some cases, including the University, these two aspects of efficiency are not equally attractive.)

The basic mechanism through which competition achieves this result is the ability of an informed customer to revert to what he or she considers to be the best supplier. In the case of the universities, the typical customer is the student. This is not to say that universities cannot and do not compete in many other “markets”. For instance, they can compete for hiring and retaining faculty, for gaining access to research funds, or for establishing links with the most rewarding firms, and so on. But competition for students – and for the revenue that can be raised in this way – is the most important of all, and is the basis on which other forms of university competition depend. We will therefore concentrate on this aspect.

The student-customer is the driving force of the University system. As with any smart consumer he or she should aim at getting the best value for money. But will the student’s act of choice be sufficiently wise and efficient to drive the system towards educational services of better quality at similar costs? There are several reasons for answering “probably the student’s choice will not”. First of all, there may be very high travel costs that prevent students from selecting the supplier they deem the best. Travel costs act as a barrier to choice and when these costs are sizeable the customer is not free to choose and so may remain locked in unsatisfactory market relations. For this reason competition is hampered.

Secondly, and more importantly, the customer-student may very well lack some fundamental information, especially on the quality of the service he or she can buy from different “suppliers”. From our own point of view, two characteristics of the service supplied are particularly relevant from a market perspective. These are the type and quality of the competence or skill bought. Not only the student-customer but society as a whole, put a high value on a university system which “produces” a set of skills that are both demanded by the market and are of high quality.

For a number of reasons the student-customer may not be able to ascertain if the skill he or she will obtain is the “right” one with respect to the future requirements of the labour market. Students may also have serious difficulties in determining who supplies the highest quality of this type of competence, simply because they lack the necessary skills to judge the quality of the educational products being offered.

It is possible to offer some partial remedy to these shortcomings. Financial support by the State to students who choose a university located far from their home can lessen and even solve the problem of travel costs. The capacity of students to select the best choice for their particular needs could be improved through a system that ranks universities and indicates, at least in the short terms, the types of skills required in the labour market.

It is true that competition based from within such a model can bring about positive results. What is required is a form of co-operation between several factors and institutions, the market place being only one of the factors involved. It should also be emphasised that several countries have experienced serious problems in collecting and making available reliable performance data. Universities themselves have often raised obstacles to such attempts. Thus it is often the case that such solutions work only in principle and not in practice.

But there is a more fundamental problem with the competition model, even a well functioning one. Ours is a not static world. It may be the one in which we live and work, nevertheless it is difficult, not to say impossible, to forecast the skills which will be needed by the labour market in the long term. Competition tends to favour those skills demanded by the market in the short term and in these way crowds out those types of knowledge that do not appear to be immediately necessary. But these forms of knowledge could be exactly what is needed following some unforeseen change in the future. If, for whatever reason, it is not easy to recover these types of knowledge when they are needed, then not only individuals who are endowed with the “wrong skills”, but society as a whole, may suffer a huge loss.

In other words, preserving educational variety may prove to be a particularly important investment for the future. We know, for example, that a number of countries place a value on bio-diversity and are willing to bear the cost it entails. There may also be as good reasons for defending knowledge-variety from the risk entailed by a necessarily myopic competitive educational system. Reducing educational diversity could have serious long-term consequences for society as a whole.

So far we have examined the competition model from the point of view of its ability to supply the skills demanded by the labour market. Even from this very limited perspective there may be good reasons for supplementing or curbing the forces of competition. The competition model is also open to other criticisms. Many of these are well known and while we do not have space to list all of them, but one is of particular relevance. If the values of a decent world require more just the guarantee of a good job or a high income, the university should be supply something more than just a variety of skills that sooner or later may be expendable in the labour market. The university should be supplying a form of enrichment at the individual and the social level. No one would dispute that unfettered competition would create an obstacle to this end. Universities should be more than mere servants of society, or exist in the service of a market economy. Through their role of moulding people, and of producing and preserving culture, they can make our society a better place in which to live. But in order for this to be true, universities should ideally be located at the “right distance” from society. They should not be too close as be submerged by the short-term exigencies of society, nor too far as to lose any contact with society.

Although the above analysis applies to various situations and systems of higher education, the situation in Italy is somewhat unique. As we have stressed, a fully competitive system is not yet in operation: in the short term this may lead to worse results than open competition would ensure. On the other hand this could also be an opportunity to achieve a situation that avoids some of the risks we have analysed in this article.