The last chapter in a story started in 2012, the ruling definitively stated that Italian universities cannot offer a degree exclusively in English.
They can, however, run degrees in both languages in parallel and offer individual English-taught modules, depending on the specific features of the discipline taught.
“The ruling seems out of touch with our reality, and with the needs of our students”
Running a degree course exclusively in English, the ruling stated, would relegate the Italian language to a marginal position in academia, restrict access to higher education for students that don’t speak English and impinge on lecturers’ freedom to teach.
For the Accademia della Crusca, the Italian language academy, it’s a “wonderful victory”, as its president Claudio Marazzini told the Italian press.
But for the vice-chancellor of the Polytechnic of Milan the ruling is out of touch with today’s internationalisation needs and could potentially impose a burden on institutions – although many universities are already running courses in both languages.
“The ruling seems out of touch with our reality, and with the needs of our students… The internationalisation process is fundamental and we’ll work with the Ministry to find solutions,” vice-chancellor Donatella Sciuto said in a statement.
“Running courses in both English and Italian in parallel is onerous – both in terms of economic and human resources – and against any idea of integration. We can’t address the social integration needs of our country by separating students into different classrooms.”
It was the Polytechnic’s decision to run all postgraduate courses exclusively in English in 2012 that triggered the case.
A group of lecturers appealed against the university’s decision to the regional tribunal, which found in their favour.
The lawyer who represented the plaintiffs throughout the six years, Maria Agostina Cabiddu , herself a lecturer at the Polytechnic, told The PIE News the appeal was not born out of a rejection of internationalisation or English.
“We are not backward-thinking, monolingual or against English,” she said.
“We were already teaching some courses and doing research in English and we will continue doing so. What we didn’t want was to see the Italian language excluded from academia, we find this absolutely intolerable.”
When the Polytechnic and the ministry of education appealed against the regional tribunal’s sentence, their appeal was rejected by the Constitutional Court last year and, this time definitively, by the Council of State.
“What we didn’t want was to see the Italian language excluded from academia, we find this absolutely intolerable”
But English is “necessary”, according to Sciuto. In her statement, she pointed out that an international university system, beyond increasing Italy’s soft power, would offer young people a choice and a future in the country.
This, she said, is important not only to retain talent, but also to offer opportunities to those who can’t afford to study abroad.
“It’s certainly not by banning English from our classrooms that we will offer new opportunities to our young people, nor we’ll prevent them from moving abroad. English is the language of technology, medicine, social science. Denying it is dangerous and anachronistic.”
But for Cabiddu, the English language doesn’t need to be the main player in the internationalisation process.
“We stand for multilingualism, but I think we are going in the other direction,” she told The PIE.
“The Erasmus program for example was intended to allow students to travel around Europe and learn different languages. But now students just go everywhere relying on a tentative English. I don’t think this is what the program intended to create.”
“I think internationalisation of staff and students is great, but we need to do things right. Some students come here with a low level of English, never learn Italian and never integrate in the culture, and then leave straight after graduation. This is not what internationalisation is meant to achieve.”
“We stand for multilingualism, but I think we are going in the other direction”
The linguistic debate around higher education internationalisation is gaining ground around Europe.
In January for example, the Dutch press reported that students and lecturers worry the preponderance of English-medium courses may restrict access to university for Dutch students and leave gaps in the workforce.
As for Italy, this may not be the end of the matter.
“The ruling allows different interpretations, so we will need to wait for the ministry’s directives,”Sciuto told The PIE.
The Italian Ministry of Education was not immediately available to comment.