Elite Italian University Meets Resistance As It Tries To Go All-English

Politecnico di Milano (Wikimedia Commons)

Politecnico di Milano (Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a guest post from Italy-based contributor to the Big Show Megan Williams…

Across continental Europe, more college and university classes are being taught in English. In making the switch to English, institutions in non-English-speaking countries believe they are better preparing students for a globalized workforce. They’re also seeking to attract more foreign students.

But sometimes, there’s fierce opposition to these moves. That was the case when lawmakers in France recently proposed increasing the number of university courses taught in English.

In Italy, a court has barred the Politecnico di Milano, the MIT of Italy, from switching to English as its sole language of instruction. The university is appealing the decision.

Already some Politecnico classes are taught in English. Drop in on computer science professor Giuseppe Serazzi’s weekly lecture and you can witness the change. Serazzi starts with a brief introduction in Italian. Then, he switches to English. The plan was for all professors teaching Master-level courses to do that.

Politecnico rector Giovanni Azzone boldly announced last year that by 2015, all post-graduate courses and some undergrad programs would be offered only in English.

Azzone said the switch to English is needed to keep attracting top Italian students who want the option of eventually working outside Italy.

“You need an international environment,” said Azzone. “You must attract international students. English is fundamental. Italian at present is an entry barrier.”

But it’s a move that met with vociferous opposition from many of the Politecnico’s 1,400 faculty members. They launched a petition calling the switch to English unconstitutional, saying it limited the freedom to teach and study in Italian, and put Italy’s cultural heritage at risk. And now they have found an ally in an Italian regional court.

Professor Hans de Wit, an expert on the internationalization of higher education at the Cattolica University in Milan, said that argument has been used many times— in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

De Wit called the Italian court’s decision “a shock.” He thinks what’s really happening is that some older professors understandably fear that a switch to English will sideline them professionally. But according to de Wit, research it’s what students want.

Politecnico Di Milano may have made a tactical mistake. De Wit said its announced change may have been too dramatic. The universities that have made the switch to English successfully have done so slowly and discreetly, thereby avoiding uncertainty and resistance.

As part of the plan to switch to English, all professors and support staff not already fluent in English have been taking weekly ESL classes. But some are there against their will, and others say a lesson a week just isn’t enough to be able to work in English.

Students agree. Computer Science student Javier Hualpa, who’s from Argentina, says it’s ironic he had to pass a stringent English exam to get in, when many of his professors would flunk it. “You have two kinds of teachers here,” says Hualpa. “The ones who have done a PhD outside Italy—they speak clear English; and the Italian ones who learned English locally with an Italian cadence. Even for the International students we say, ‘You don’t speak well.’”

Despite the problems in switching to English, students like Hualpa and the Politecnico’s rector agree that not switching to English would only limit their future choices.



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