Internationalisation as a Lever for Change: The Case of Italy

Fiona Hunter


The many changes introduced over the previous decade in Europe by the Bologna Process have called for new state-university relations and behaviours, as well as new understandings and enactments of internationalization. However, how this has been interpreted by national higher education policies has depended significantly on the different country contexts (Nokkala 2007). Italy represents a national system that has struggled to introduce effective Bologna reforms because of an unfavourable starting point: in the preceding decades, it failed to cope with the challenges of a changing higher education environment and with the explosion of demand for higher education (Van der Wende 2001).

This has had consequences for its higher education institutions operating in a resource dependency regime (Marginson 2007; Pfeffer and Salancik 1978). Although only the 66 state universities in the Italian higher education system [1] rely heavily on state funding, all 95 (including the 29 non-state universities who are essentially privately funded) are regulated by the Ministry for Education, Universities and Research (MIUR). If the national system, caught up in its own path dependency of historical legacy and practice (Krücken 2003), is slow, unable or unwilling to change, the universities will struggle to adapt, and their ability to interpret and respond to a more international and increasingly competitive environment will depend significantly on their own historical legacy and historically developed practices and identities. In other words, not all institutions will respond at the same pace or develop the same response.

Systemic Tradition of Central Planning and Uniformity

A highly centralized and uniform model of higher education, established at the time of Italian unification in the second half of the nineteenth century, has persisted over the decades, despite societal pressures for greater decentralization and diversification since the 1960s. Internal pressure groups have had only minor impact in pushing through reform measures and it has only been through exogenous drivers, expressed principally through the Bologna Process, that any headway in reforming the system has been achieved in recent years. Even this pan-European reform process has encountered strong internal resistance from a powerful and conservative academic community, able to influence political direction and take advantage of the inefficiencies of central planning policies and the often unstable and frequently changing political environment (Boffo 1997; Luberto 2007; Luzzatto 1996; Moscati 1991, 2002; Vaira 2003a, b; Woolf 2003).

The lack of any significant degree of genuine university autonomy and institutional variety has acted as an effective barrier to change by removing any 'institutional space' for bottom-up innovation or experimentation (Luberto 2007). Tertiary education has traditionally been provided almost exclusively by universities and, until the Bologna Process reforms, the dominant qualification was the one tier, long cycle, traditional academic degree known as “laurea”, with an official length of four to six years. However, actual duration was significantly longer and wastage rates were extremely high, with over 60 % of students failing to complete their studies and often less than 10 % managing to complete within the official timeframe.

Furthermore, university degrees are awarded “valore legale” (legal validity) by the Ministry (MIUR), which exercises control over curricular content, credit weighting and academic ratios in order to ensure homogeneity of standards. Consequently, Italian universities have tended to interpret accountability to the Ministry in the legal and administrative sense of fulfilling requirements, and have, to a large extent, remained isolated from changes in their environment and the needs of external stakeholders (Capano 1998; Luzzatto and Moscati 2007).

Where reforms for greater diversification and decentralization were introduced, the universities' approach was often one of compliance, leading to cosmetic change rather than any significant shift in the traditional structure and culture of the institutions (Meyer and Rowan 1977). This behaviour has been apparent also in the implementation of the Bologna reforms.

  • [1] This article refers only to universities and not to the non-university sector which is made up of 137 institutions in the academies of fine arts, conservatories, dance and theatre schools or other higher education institutions under the jurisdiction of other Ministries
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