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Italian university switches to English

Politecnico di Milano

From opera at La Scala to football at the San Siro stadium, from the catwalks of fashion week to the soaring architecture of the cathedral, Milan is crowded with Italian icons.

Which makes it even more of a cultural earthquake that one of Italy’s leading universities – the Politecnico di Milano – is going to switch to the English language. The university has announced that from 2014 most of its degree courses – including all its graduate courses – will be taught and assessed entirely in English rather than Italian.

The waters of globalisation are rising around higher education – and the university believes that if it remains Italian-speaking it risks isolation and will be unable to compete as an international institution.

“We strongly believe our classes should be international classes – and the only way to have international classes is to use the English language,” says the university’s rector, Giovanni Azzone. Italy might have been the cradle of the last great global language – Latin – but now this university is planning to adopt English as the new common language.

‘Window of change’

“Universities are in a more competitive world, if you want to stay with the other global universities – you have no other choice,” says Professor Azzone. He says that his university’s experiment will “open up a window of change for other universities”, predicting that in five to 10 years other Italian universities with global ambitions will also switch to English.

This is one of the oldest universities in Milan and a flagship institution for science, engineering and architecture, which lays claim to a Nobel prize winner. Almost one in three of all Italy’s architects are claimed as graduates. So this is a significant step. But what is driving this cultural change? Is it the intellectual equivalent of pop bands like Abba singing in English to reach a wider market?

Professor Azzone says a university wants to reach the widest market in ideas – and English has become the language of higher education, particularly in science and engineering. “I would have preferred if Italian was the common language, it would have been easier for me – but we have to accept real-life,” he says.

When English is the language of international business, he also believes that learning in English will make his students more employable. These are the days of the curriculum vitae rather than the dolce vita. “It’s very important for our students not only to have very good technical skills, but also to work in an international environment.”

Modern-age Latin

The need to attract overseas students and researchers, including from the UK and non-English speaking countries, is another important reason for switching to English as the primary language.

“We are very proud of our city and culture, but we acknowledge that the Italian language is an entry barrier for overseas students,” he says, particularly when recruiting from places such as China and India. “They can be Italian students, studying in an Italian culture, but in an international language,” says Professor Azzone.

There is also the growing impact of university league tables. Even if academics question their objectivity they have become increasingly important in how universities market themselves. And the use of English, particularly for research, is seen as helping to raise visibility in international rankings.

But Professor Azzone also pointed to the bigger economic geography of higher education. European universities face being caught between two competing powers – the wealthy heavy weights in the United States and the rising countries of Asia.

Global competition

Professor Azzone says there is a stark choice between becoming isolated and parochial or trying to compete with these academic superpowers – and he argues that this will require European universities to work together.

“We have to give a sense that we are not a dying country – but we are not large enough to have a critical mass. We need to have a European alliance of strong universities.” The change to English will mean new text books, lectures, course materials. There will be 3m euros for recruiting additional academic staff.

But is there also a cultural cost here? The university, located in Piazza Leonardo da Vinci, with its mellow early summer colours and the sounds of scooters and trams, is going to be echoing with international English. Opponents among the academic staff to this change in language are organising a protest petition.

It’s also evident how much English already pervades the city. On the local metro and railway, announcements are in Italian and English and Italian language websites offer English alternatives. A job fair at the university is promoted with banners announcing “Career day”.

Italian job, English words

Anna Realini, studying for a masters degree in energy engineering, says she has to use English when writing emails in her internship with an Italian company – and is criticised if she uses Italian.

But she says she agrees with the move to English as likely to improve her career prospects: “I agree with the choice… If our university gives us the tools to use our knowledge all over the world it is better.” She also says it’s a more affordable way for Italian students to learn in an international environment, without the cost of studying overseas.

Luca Maggiolini Cacciamani, studying automation engineering, also accepts the necessity. “Right now English is the new common language. We like our language, but we can see it’s important to use a common language when sharing research. So it’s a good idea.” But there were warnings of a “major concern” raised by Antonello Cherubini, studying mechanical engineering.

He says that studying in China and the United States showed him the strength of Italian teaching – and he wants to ensure that this is not lost. “Italian students often do not realise how good we are – and there is a risk that the main tool we have to communicate, the language, could be in danger,” he says. There had to be assurances about the standard of English used by staff, he said.

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