Education in Italy


Legislative Framework
Since 1996 the Italian higher education system has been undergoing a wide and ambitious reform process that has been seeking to restructure and innovate curriculum, governance and organization. The reforms were largely lead by academics from the Italian Rectors Conference who in 1996 published a white paper with recommendations to revitalize higher education. With the election of a new government in 1996 the reform movement moved forward. Drawing further momentum from the Sorbonne and Bologna Declarations, the Italian government in November 1999 began the process of restructuring higher education with the passing into force of a ministerial decree (law 509/99) that has helped re-define the landscape of Italian higher education.
The first change includes the adoption of a binary system with a university track made up of a three-tier degree structure, together with a parallel postsecondary professional track organized at the regional level. In addition, the curriculum of each field has been divided into a core group of disciplines to be found at all universities and a second group to be structured independently by the faculties of each university to enhance institutional autonomy in adapting programs to the demands of society and the labor market. A second requirement of the 1999 reforms was the introduction of a credit system compatible with the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) to make individual curricula more flexible and to ease the creation of continuing education programs. Third, a national quality assurance system was established, with evaluation offices at each university coordinated nationally by the Comitato per la Valutazione del Sistema Universitario (National Committee of University Evaluation).
1. Easily Readable and Comparable Degrees
  •  The reform law of 1999 introduced the Diploma Supplement to the Italian system of higher education. It is now compulsory to issue a supplement for all degrees awarded within the new degree framework. Its design and structure, consistent with the European model, was approved by a ministerial decree of May 2001. The Diploma Supplement has to be issued in a second European language in addition to Italian.
  • Italy has signed and ratified the Lisbon Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications. In 2002, many of the provisions of the Lisbon Convention were incorporated in national legislation.
  • The Centro Informazione Mobilità Equivalenze Academische [2] (CIMEA) of the Fondazione Rui in conjunction with the Ministry of Education, University and Research acts as the Italian ENIC/NARIC body.
2. Degree Structure
  • In accordance with the reforms of 1999, the Italian government began, in 2001, restructuring its degrees along the lines set out in the Bologna Declaration. The text of the new law stipulates that students who were enrolled in the old Laurea (4- to 5-year first degree) or Diploma Universitaria programs in 2000/2001 be given the choice of completing their studies under the old system or transferring to the new laurea programs in a corresponding field. However, the transfer was not automatic and has been left up to each faculty to decide on a case-by-case basis.
  • Prior to the reforms of 1999, universities could legally confer four degrees: the vocationally-oriented, two- to three-year Diploma Universitario; the academically-oriented four- to five-year Diploma di Laurea (the low graduation rates from which was one of the main driving forces behind the reform movement); a two-year postgraduate Diploma di Specializzazione intended for professional training; and the three-year Dottorato di Ricerca.
New Structure, First Cycle:
  • The first university degree under the new system is the Laurea (same as the old degree name), which is a basic and autonomous degree comparable to the Bologna bachelor’s degree. It is normally three years or 180 ECTS in length. The new undergraduate programs (corsi di laurea) are designed to give students an adequate command of general scientific methods and contents as well as specific professional skills. Admission to laurea programs requires the Italian school-leaving certificate (Diploma di Superamento dell’Esame di Stato conclusivo dei corsi di Istruzione Secondaria Superiore) after completion of 13 years of primary and secondary schooling, or an equivalent foreign qualification. The more selective programs can impose further course and grade requirements.
  • The gradual introduction of new laurea programs began in academic year 2001/2002 as mandated in legislation 509/99, while the second-tier, two-year programs were introduced from academic year 2002/2003.
Second Cycle:

  • At the graduate level, three degrees are awarded. The most important one is the academically-oriented Laurea Specialistica (LS), which is awarded at a level of 300 ECTS and therefore normally requires 2 years or 120 ECTS of graduate study and the completion of an original thesis. The LS provides a wider theoretical knowledge in a specific field of study. Access to LS programs is through the Italian first degree (Laurea) or an equivalent foreign degree.
  • A limited number of LS (laurea specialistica a ciclo unico) programs are regulated by specific EU directives (in Dentistry, Human Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Architecture) and share the following features: access is through the Italian school leaving certificate or an equivalent foreign qualification, admission is always subject to an entrance examination, and the programs are of the long, integrated variety lasting 5 years or in medicine 6 years.
  • The second type of graduate degree is the Diploma di Specializzazione di Primo Livello (DS1), offering training for specific professions, most of which are regulated by law. Admission is restricted by numerous clauses and is therefore subject to a very competitive examination (concorso di ammissione). The core curriculum is defined by national regulations, with the rest defined by the individual universities offering the programs. The core curriculum is mandatory in order that graduates from the programs may legally practice their related profession as a “Specialist”. The limited places are reserved for laurea graduates (first cycle) or those with equivalent foreign qualifications. The programs last 2/3 years, or a combined credit load (including the laurea) of 300-360 ECTS, and include practical experience. Attendance is compulsory and the final examination is the defense of a written thesis.
  • The first level (DS1) programs and degrees are quoted in the reform law but have not yet been established. All existing DS programs rank as second level programs (DS2 – see below) and are therefore 3rd cycle degrees (access by LS). They are offered in such fields as law, teaching, and dental and medical specializations. No comparison between the DS2 and qualifications conferred by universities of applied science is possible due to substantial differences in level and curricula.
  • The third graduate qualification is the shorter, professionally-oriented Master Universitario di Primo Livello (MU1 – minimum 1 year or 60 ECTS), which is open to holders of the first-cycle laurea. These programs are offered in non-regulated fields. Admission may be subject to an entrance exam. Curriculum is autonomously designed by individual universities and generally includes a period of practical training of 2-3 months.
  • It should be noted that with reference to the Bologna Declaration, the MU and DS qualifications are considered independent of the two-tier, 3+2 system. They are offered as training for specific professions most of which are regulated by law.
Third Cycle:
  • Postgraduate studies include Corsi di Dottorato di Ricerca (research doctorate programs), Corsi di Specializzazione di 2° Livello (second-level specialization programs) and Corsi di Master Universitario di 2° Livello (second-level university master’s degree programs).
  • The Dottorato di Ricerca trains postgraduates for advanced scientific research or professional appointments. Access is based on the Laurea Specialistica or an equivalent foreign qualification, and admission is subject to the passing of very competitive examinations. The official length of the course is a minimum of three years and requires the completion of an original dissertation.
  • The Corsi di Specializzazione di 2° Livello (DS2 – see above) provide postgraduates with the knowledge and skills required for the practice of highly specialized professions. They may only be established in application of specific Italian laws or EU directives. Access is based on the LS (second degree) or an equivalent foreign qualification and is subject to the passing of a competitive entrance examination.
  • The Corsi di Master Universitario di 2° Livello (MU2) is an advanced scientific program or higher continuing education program which is open to holders of an LS or an equivalent foreign qualification. It is awarded to postgraduates who have obtained a minimum of 60 credits.
3. Credit Transfer
  • The European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) entered into the legal framework in 1999 under Ministerial Decree 509/99 in the university sector and in the non-university sector under decree 508/99. It has been adopted as the national system and is known as the credito formativo universitaro. It is based on student workload and used as an accumulation system. One year of full-time study (60 ECTS credits) is equal to 1500 hours, or equally, one credit corresponds to 25 hours of work. The number of hours can vary by 20 percent for stated reasons. Grades are expressed in terms of a grading scale of 0-30 (18 being the minimum passing grade).
  • Most institutions of higher education are using ECTS as a transfer system for international exchanges. Some universities implemented the new credit system in 2000/01 on an experimental basis, and all others with few exceptions implemented it in academic year 2001/02. The non-university sector started implementing ECTS in 2002/03.
  • A number of university programs have posted ECTS grade equivalencies on their Web sites. Although these grading scales do not represent official equivalencies, they provide an idea of how ECTS and the Italian grading system might compare. They also reveal that different faculties and institutions interpret the ECTS grading scale quite differently:
ECTS Grade
Italian Marks
30 – 30
Excellent, outstanding performance with only minor errors
27 – 29
Very good, above the average standard but with some errors
24 – 26
Good, generally sound work with a number of notable errors
21 – 23
Satisfactory, fair but with significant shortcomings
18 – 20
Sufficient, performance meets the minimum criteria
< 18
Fail, some more work required before the credit can be awarded
Fail, considerable further work is required
* University of Pisa [3], Faculty of Engineering (suggested equivalency).


ECTS Grade
Italian Grade
Very good
Sufficient, performance meets the minimum criteria
< 18
University of Torino, Faculty of Economics
4. Mobility
  • With the aim of fostering international student mobility, a July 2003 law established a “fund to support the mobility of students”. The financial support of the ministry will be distributed to universities and will include supplementary funds for Erasmus grants. With the same aim, the law provides for the setting up of the National Register of Students and Graduates. The register will facilitate procedures related to the recognition of credits.
  • Italian universities have raised concerns about the lack of legislation in other Bologna countries for the recognition of joint degrees, which is viewed as an impediment to greater student mobility. Italian law 509 allows universities to award joint degrees with other Italian or foreign universities.
  • Erasmus student and teacher mobility figures show that there have been increases in the number of incoming and outgoing students, while the number of outgoing teachers has decreased. The number of incoming students in 2002/03 was 10,982, up from 9,855 in 2001/02, while the number of Italian students spending a period abroad through the Erasmus program has increased from 13,950 to 15,225 over the same period. In terms of teacher mobility, the number of incoming teachers has increased from 1,493 to 1,650 and the number of outgoing teachers has decreased from 922 to 897.
5. Quality Assurance
  • Italy participates in the European Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education through the Comitato Nazionale per la Valutazione del Sistema Universitario [4] (CNVSU) established in 1999. The body is responsible for determining the general criteria for university evaluation, fostering experimentation along with the diffusion of evaluation methodologies and developing a yearly program of university external evaluations. Another important task of CNVSU is to define criteria and methodologies for the harmonization of the self-evaluation procedures carried out by the internal evaluation units of individual universities.
  • At the minister’s request, the committee also performs advisory tasks, preliminary inquiries, evaluations, and defines standards, parameters and technical regulations.
  • There is also a basis for evaluating degree courses, which can be adopted by universities on a voluntary basis. This model is known as the Campus One Project [5] and it was initiated by the Italian University Rectors Conference [6] (CRUI). Based on both internal and external evaluation, the project aims to improve teaching quality and promote the quality culture among institutions of higher education. The project is experimental and has been given financing by the government for a three-year period (2001-2004). The program focuses on 5 areas: quality evaluation, information and computer technology, program management evaluation, foreign language and computer skills certification and links with stakeholders. The ultimate goal of the CRUI and CNVSU projects is to launch a system of evaluation and accreditation at the national level.
6. Promotion of European Dimensions in Higher Education
  • The Italian government places great stock in the implementation of joint programs, preferably leading to joint degrees. Over the last few years, the Italian academic world has concluded a number of agreements towards this end, arising from both the initiatives of individual institutions and initiatives at the national level. Some recent examples are the French-Italian University [7], the German-Italian University and the Virtual University UNIADRION, which is a joint initiative between the seven countries of the Adriatic-Ionian Initiative.
  • The Ministry of Education co-finances integrated study programs carried out with the participation of at least one other country, in which the mutual recognition of study periods and titles is assured, and/or joint programs are delivered.
  • In 2003, the Italian NARIC [8] office, with financial support from the European Commission, set up a national database on joint and double degrees.
Nick Clark
May 2004
Survey on Master Degrees and Joint Degrees in Europe, Christian Tauch and Andrejs Rauhvargers, Sept. 2002
The State of Implementation of ECTS in Europe, European University Association, Oct. 2002
Diploma Supplement — State of Implementation, European Commission, last update June 2003
Lisbon Convention Status Reports, Council of Europe, status as of August 29, 2003
The Information Network on Education in EuropeEurydice [9], European Union
Italy: A Hard Implementation of a Comprehensive Reform, Roberto Moscati — International Higher Education, Boston College, Winter 2002
National Report on the Implementation of the Bologna Process — Italian Ministry for Education, University and Research, July 2003of Management
The Bologna Bachelor’s Degree: An Overview [10] — Mariam Assefa and Robert Sedgwick, World Education News & Reviews, New York, Jan/Feb 2004
Erasmus Mobility by Country 2001/2002 — ECTS Workshop, Feb. 20-21, 2003, UK Socrates Erasmus Council [11]
Higher Education Reform in Italy: an Institutional Analysis and a First Appraisal. 1996-2001 — Massimiliano Vaira — Higher Education Policy; Volume 16, No.2, June 2003
The Italian University System (DM 509/99) — Fondazione Rui, Rome 2000