Italian Higher Education Response to the Bologna Process

Italy acted uncharacteristically as a “first mover”, and a landmark reform to redefine the Italian Higher Education landscape according to the Bologna principles was brought into force in 1999. Its objectives were clear: extend institutional autonomy and introduce a Bologna-compatible degree structure, credit system and quality assurance system. The expected outcomes were greater efficiency through increased enrolments and reduced wastage rates, enhanced graduate employability and improved access to the European Labour Market (Guerzoni 2001; Luzzatto and Moscati 2007).

In 2001, the reform swept away the traditional “laurea” replacing it with the “three plus two” structure (“laurea” and “laurea magistrale”) and also introduced one-year Professional Masters, accredited directly by the universities, to facilitate access to the labour market. A fully compatible ECTS credit system was introduced to promote a more student-centred approach in curricular design, as well as to encourage student mobility and foster the development of lifelong learning opportunities. The first-ever national evaluation system, coordinated by a national committee with local university units, was established.

However, despite the far-reaching changes in tools and structures and the granting of institutional autonomy, centralization continued with the Ministry retaining significant control over content and severely limiting institutional discretion to characterize programmes (Luzzatto and Moscati 2007; Moscati 2002). Compression and fragmentation often characterized the new degrees, where the academic tendency was often to compress the old four-year degrees into a three-year program and then fragment into many modules. Interaction with employers to design new courses in line with labour market needs was limited principally to those disciplines that already enjoyed a tradition of interaction with external stakeholders.

Compression and fragmentation were often accompanied by proliferation with a doubling in the number of degrees, a burgeoning of branch campuses and new universities, and an increase in the number of academic positions in conditions of a stable or declining student population (CNSVU 2008). Despite an initial rise in student numbers, enrolment levels stabilized and then began to decline. Completion times and wastage rates that seemed to be improving in the early years of the reform slowly slipped back to pre-reform levels. The only constant upward trend appeared to be in the numbers of institutions and programmes that continued to offer a model of “more of the same”, rather than any genuine diversification or innovation in institutional profiles or portfolios.

These outcomes suggest that many institutional responses to the reform were made more according to the traditional logic of academic interest, rather than any attempt at interpreting the spirit of the reform and opening up to a European Higher Education space (Luberto 2007; Luzzatto and Moscati 2007). The newly reformed higher education system still suffered from a lack of effective accountability able to influence institutional behaviour, and the quality assurance system introduced under the reform package acted more as a data collector, devoid of any tools to assess and reward university performance (Perrotti 2002; Vaira 2003b).

Since the end of the first decade of the Bologna Process, and against a backdrop of political instability and economic decline, successive governments have intervened with several 'reforms of the reform' in an attempt to correct the distortions. Restrictions on content were relaxed in favour of greater institutional discretion, but credit requirements and academic ratios were tightened in an attempt to control proliferation. As a result, the number of courses fell by around a third, bringing bachelors and masters level degree courses down from 5879 to around 1200, and doctoral programmes from 2200 to 919 (ANVUR 2014).

With receding finances, the trend has been one of budget restrictions, but also one of tighter coupling between state expectations and institutional outcomes, along with the introduction of an element of domestic competition. Funding is increasingly linked to performance in an attempt to reward quality and efficiency in teaching and research, although this still has little impact overall. The number of new academic positions has been cut back significantly, but universities who perform well can hire more staff, while those universities that overspend their annual budget are subject to a hiring freeze.

Reforms have sought to further extend institutional autonomy and modernize governance in an attempt to make a radical shift away from a traditional inward-looking model typically centred on disciplinary rather than institutional interests and with very limited external representation, to one that is more agile outward-facing and responsive to stakeholder needs (ANVUR 2014; Boffo 1997; Stefani 2014). Transition towards a more autonomous model of quality assurance in line with European guidelines was completed with the setting up of the National Agency for the Evaluation of Universities and Research (ANVUR) in 2012.

However, after more than almost a decade and a half of legislative attempts to improve the system and align it with European models of practice, recent results appear disheartening. Although in the period between 1993 and 2012, Italy has increased its graduate population in the 25–34 year-old age group from 7.1 to

22.3 % (from 5.5 to 12.7 % of overall population), it is still one of the European countries with the lowest proportion of university graduates (ANVUR 2014). Moreover, the latest figures show that in 2014 the Italian university is losing its appeal with enrolments down 20 % since the introduction of the Bologna reforms. Only three in ten of 19-year olds choose to enrol in a university, making it practically impossible for Italy to reach the European 2020 objective of 40 % of graduates in the 30–34 year old age group (Bartolini 2014a). Indeed, the target has been reset at around 27–28 % (Cammelli and Gasperoni 2014). Tertiary attainment rates in Italy among 25–34-year olds in 2012 were the fourth lowest in the OECD and G20 countries, ranking 34th out of 37 countries (OECD Reports 2014).

The decision not to enrol at a university may also be linked to low expectations of employment opportunity, but also the time spent in university in order to complete an education. The average time to finish a three-year Bachelor degree is

5.1 years, 70 % more than the official length and 2.8 years for a two-year Master.

Only one third of Bachelor students and 40 % of Masters students finish in the required time (ANVUR 2014). Overall, dropout rates have improved somewhat, but are still high with 55 out of 100 students completing their studies against an average of 70 in Europe (ANVUR 2014; Bartoloni 2014a, 29th May; Cammelli and Gasperoni 2014). Such disaffection is leading a growing number of Italians to seek their university education abroad. Around 63,000 students enrolled outside Italy in 2011, which was a 51.2 % increase on the numbers in 2006 (Marino 2014).

Those who do complete their studies are inevitably older than their European counterparts: Bachelor graduates are on average 25.5 years old and Master graduates 27.8, and in the current economic climate many are forced, rather than choose, to seek employment in the European Labour Market because of lack of opportunity at home (Bartoloni 2014a). Between 2008 and 2012, unemployment rates rose steeply and the proportion of 15–29 year olds neither employed nor in education or training (NEET) rose from 19.2 to 24.6 %, with only Spain and Turkey faring worse (OECD Reports 2014). The future looks decidedly bleak for many young Italians and far from the promised scenario of the Bologna reforms of the previous decade.

While there are strong regional differences, with Northern Italy generally performing better than the Centre and South (ANVUR 2014), it becomes apparent that despite the many attempts to modernize Italian higher education by successive governments over the last 15 years, structural dysfunctions still hamper any real change within the system. Centralized control based on legal homogeneity of qualifications has created a cumbersome model that makes the shift to the proposed model of the European Higher Education Area a slow and laborious one (Luberto 2007; Neave 1998). The Italian state promotes autonomy and diversity in its reform measures, but imposes regulations that encourage uniformity and rigidity, while the universities have typically resisted top-down reforms and appeared unable or unwilling to generate any bottom-up change from within.

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