Old Italian School to Switch Instruction to English
By D.D. GUTTENPLAN for the New York Times
Published: June 11, 2012
MILAN — Although it is not as old as the University of Bologna, founded in 1088, nor quite as highly regarded, the 148-year-oldPolitecnico di Milano has a proud history. The oldest university in this prosperous industrial city, the Politecnico was host to the first European center for electronic computing during the 1950s. In 1963, a faculty member, Giulio Natta, received the Nobel Prize in chemistry. The European communications satellite Siro, launched in 1977, was a Politecnico project.
But the school’s most recent innovation may prove more controversial — and perhaps just as influential. Starting with the 2014-15 school year, all graduate-level courses will be taught in English.
“An educational institution must adapt itself to the evolving world,” said Giovanni Azzone, the engineering professor who was elected to the university rectorship two years ago. “We believe that globalization is so important that training people to be cross-cultural is a compulsory skill that we must provide to our students.”
Speaking in his office in the school’s leafy main campus on the Piazza Leonardo da Vinci, Mr. Azzone said the change, which was announced last month, had been under consideration for some time.
The university had started offering some courses in English in 2003, but only at its regional branches — it has operations in Como, Cremona, Lecco, Mantua and Piacenza. Every year, the English offerings increased until they included master of science courses for management science, computer science, mechanical engineering, civil engineering and construction engineering.
These courses proved especially popular with the 3,500 foreign students who make up about a quarter of the Politecnico’s graduate enrollment. But since they were always offered in parallel with courses taught in Italian, “a lot of our Italian students naturally preferred to take their courses in Italian,” Mr. Azzone said. “At the same time, many of the foreign students never took any courses in Italian.”
The school draws its international enrollment from 110 countries, with China, Iran and Turkey the main nations that send students. Mr. Azzone noted that Turkish or Iranian students often had trouble getting visas to Anglophone countries, particularly the United States.
Mr. Azzone said that the lack of classroom contact between native Italian students and their international peers had led to the growth of two academically equal, but largely socially separate, student populations — a situation he described as “not completely satisfactory.”
“I had a student from one of the Gulf states say to me that he could have had the same experience in Dubai,” Mr. Azzone said. “If we want to be the gateway between Italy and the rest of the world, something had to change.”
Tuition at the state-funded university for students from the European Union is as much as €3,500, or $4,400, a year, depending on family income.
Similarly, tuition will be capped at €3,500 for non-E.U. students, with about a quarter of them attending for free.
“It’s not a business for us. It’s a way of attracting talent. It’s important that we are able to attract foreign students at least of the same quality as our Italian students,” he said.
Along with the switch to English, there were also plans to make Italian-language and culture courses compulsory for foreign students, making up 10 of the 120 credits required for master’s programs.
Undergraduate courses would continue to be taught in Italian.
The Politecnico offers graduate programs in architecture, engineering, industrial design, fashion, mathematics and the various sciences.
“We are planning an extensive training program for our Italian professors,” Mr. Azzone said. While the school is actively recruiting native English speakers for its permanent faculty, which Mr. Azzone said he hoped would eventually be 20 percent non-Italian, initially many courses are to be taught by visiting professors. English-language courses for Italian students would be contracted outside the university.
The shift was approved by the university senate, 28 to 1.
The switch was also denounced by Accademia della Crusca, the Florentine society dedicated to maintaining the purity of the Italian language.
David Petrie, president of the Association of Foreign Lecturers in Italy, a union for non-Italian faculty members, condemned the decision to keep English instruction outside the university. “You cannot separate your language teaching from the rest of the institution and expect success,” he said.
“Our students will use English textbooks in their courses,” Mr. Azzone responded, adding that the technical terms for the various disciplines “are well known by our professors, who publish in English most of their scientific papers already.”
“For European universities, the risk is of being stuck in the middle, between Anglo-Saxon countries which represent the traditional leaders in education and the Asian countries who our young people believe represent the future,” he said.
The switch to English may have been controversial, but so far applications have increased from both Italy and abroad. “No one, not even our critics, disputes that this change will be good for our students,” Mr. Azzone said.