Presence and characteristics of foreign students in Italy in the international context 1945-1998.

Andrea Cammelli, University of Bologne)

22 February 1999

TItaly was for many years the sixth most important destination for a large number of students coming from abroad and yet, their presence has barely been studied. In fact, the celebrations for the nine-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the University of Bologna provided a catalyst for the undertaking of systematic research on this foreign element.
It is difficult to determine the number of foreign students in Italy during the first years after Italian unity (1861). The new State had to create a comprehensive system of education and in this context, the foreign student might well be imagined as an “Italic foreigner”—someone who, coming from Piedmont or the Duchy of Parma, crossed the borders of his or her own State and chose Bologna, a pontifical city, or Milan, an Austro-Hungarian city, for university studies.
The year 1923-1924 marked the first phase of a significant increase in the foreign presence within the Italian university system. This growth and the subsequent acceleration which mainly characterised the first half of the 1930s must be attributed to the foreign policy implemented at that time by the Fascist regime and the access to Italian universities of young Jews coming from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe where they were faced with the existence—de jure or de facto—of admissions quotas. However, the alignment of the Fascist regime with Hitler’s Germany, the racial laws and then the entry into the war led to a sudden exodus of the Jewish students then in Italy.
The period between 1945 and 1980 constituted the ‘Golden Age’ of foreign students in Italy. Apart from the presence of students belonging to the Allied liberation armies in the post-war years, there was a determined effort on the part of the first governments of the new Republic to facilitate the resumption of studies by young adolescents, even foreigners, whose education had been interrupted by the events of the war. The arrival of foreign university students reached its peak in the 1960-1980 period. In 1960-61, 3,589 enrolments are recorded; five years later, there are 6,130, and at the beginning of the new decade (1970-71), 14,357. Eleven years later (1981-82), the number of foreign students in Italy reached 30,493, or 2.8 percent of the total student population (just over 1 million), a record which has remained unbroken.
The presence of certain nationalities may be explained by various motivations. Following the coup d’état of the Greek colonels in 1967, for example, the 16,593 Greek students in Italy accounted for 58 percent of all foreign students. The case of students coming from the United States is also interesting: for the most part, these were second- or third-generation Italian-Americans, almost all of whom were enrolled in the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, because of the difficulty of getting admitted to medical schools in their own country but also because of the local market’s absorption capacities.
The rapid expansion of the university population, coinciding as it did the most violent phase of the student protest movement, led government administrations to examine the question of foreign students under the heading of the ‘foreign student problem’. The political response to this problem thus involved the approval of a series of restrictive measures, with the result that during the 1980s, Italian universities lost more than one-third of their foreign students—a counter-trend relative to the choices made by the other major countries of Europe and the rest of the world.
During the last decade, many changes have modified the panorama of foreign students in Italy as well as the features of international student mobility in general. A growing number of students from ex-Yugoslavia and Albania, for example, have poured into Italy. The students who are now in Italy have profoundly altered their preferences, moreover—if they mainly choose science faculties, they are also found in all the other university courses, including those more specifically associated with the humanities.

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