What are the features of Italian higher education? Let’s discuss all the advantages and disadvantages of studying there, how much does it cost for a foreigner and why Italy is the number one destination for the Erasmus exchange program.
Secondary education in Italy is divided into two stages:
Scuola secondaria di primo grado is a secondary school, compulsory for all children between the ages of 11 to 14. All educational institutions adhere to the general curriculum, which includes the Italian language and literature, history, geography, mathematics, natural science, computer science, English and an additional foreign language (usually French or Spanish), art, music and physical education.
At the end of the third year of schooling, children have to take five written and one oral exam in completed subjects. In case of success, a special diploma is issued, indicating the completion of this stage of training, — diploma di licenza media.
Scuola secondaria di secondo grado is a five-year high school for students aged 14 to 19. The first two years of education (until children reach the age of 16) are compulsory, the remaining three are not. Students can choose which educational institution they want to attend at this stage:
Lyceum (liceo) is considered the most elite option since it has a scientific and academic focus. Different lyceums can have a certain specialization: classical, scientific, linguistic, musical, liberal arts and fine arts lyceums.
The technical school (istituto tecnico) is the most popular way of general education. There are two types of such schools — technological and economic. Education here consists of specialized theoretical training and a three-month internship during the last year. Graduates of such schools have the right to continue their studies at the university.
The vocational school (istituto professionale) offers a practice-oriented education aimed at preparing students for future employment.
At the end of the fifth year of study, all students pass the final exam (esame di Stato), qualifying them for university admission.
Education in Italy annually attracts thousands of foreign students from all over the world. Italy is considered the most popular destination under the international exchange program Erasmus. It is worth going there not only for delicious food and rowdy entertainment. Italy is the birthplace of the most iconic Renaissance artists, so to no one's surprise, the university buildings look like the works of art as well. The very first university in Europe was built here — the history of the University of Bologna can be traced back to the Crusades of the 11th century.
The advantages of studying in Italy
Low tuition fees. Compared to many European countries, Italy is relatively cheap — about 4,330 USD per year in case of studying in Italian. In addition, a foreign student has the opportunity to receive a social scholarship from the state, which is issued to all who is in need of additional funding. According to it, a student can receive 974 USD per month, which covers expenses not only for tuition but also for living in the country. University scholarships are also common in Italy. Their size can range from 1,082 USD to 10,824 USD.
Freedom of choice. This may surprise some students, but in Italian universities, there are no fixed educational programs. What a student will study, for the most part, depends only on him: The student is free to choose courses and lecturers. This allows to create a tailor-made program but forces one to carefully monitor the available courses and the amount of earned credits.
Design, architecture and urban planning programs are the best Italy has to offer. They are taught at polytechnic institutes, which have recently begun to gain immense popularity. Today, the Turin and Milan Polytechnic institutes are as well known as the University of Bologna.
Programs in English. Due to the fact that Italy is one of the most popular countries for studying among foreigners, the number of programs taught in English has almost doubled over the past 10 years. The level of English proficiency required for admission to an Italian university must not be lower than Intermediate (B1, min. IELTS 5.5) for a bachelor's degree or Upper-Intermediate (B2, min. IELTS 6.5) for a master's degree.
Italian language and culture. The Italian language proficiency gives students a lot of bonuses such as lower tuition fees, employment advantages and makes the experience of communicating with locals much smoother. In addition, Italian is the fifth among the most studied languages. Many foreigners seek to come here to plunge into the unique culture of Italy — the homeland of the most famous artists, sculptors, and architects that walked the earth.
Disadvantages of studying in Italy
Unemployment. Italy is ranked sixth in Europe among the countries with the highest unemployment rates: a tenth of the population neither works nor undergoes training. Youth employment statistics sound even worse: more than 30% of young people do not have a permanent job, thus making Italy the fourth among the countries with the highest unemployment rates among the youth.
Education system. Many experts consider the rigidity of the existing educational system to be the main cause of youth unemployment. Universities practically do not provide students with opportunities for developing soft skills and acquiring practical knowledge and skills that are important for employers. In addition, university programs do not meet the real needs of the Italian job market: the majority of students end up being academically overqualified to occupy positions in technical fields offered by the market.
Busy life. Italy is one of the European cultural centres. World-class events take place here like the biennales of art, film festivals, fashion weeks, music festivals etc. On the one hand, a foreign student has a chance to be at the epicentre of prestigious events. On the other hand, it can distract from studies, especially if a student is studying in a large city.
Low level of English proficiency. Despite the growing number of courses taught in English at Italian universities, most students report a fairly poor knowledge of English among professors. In addition, Italian will certainly be needed in everyday life and will be absolutely necessary for employment.
Cost and structure of education in Italy
Min. language level
Free (Public school)
16,237 USD (Private)
IELTS / CILS
IELTS / CILS
IELTS / CILS
IELTS / CILS
IELTS / CILS
Italian higher education system includes several types of institutions:
Universities (Università) and polytechnics (Politecnici);
Higher art schools (Istituzioni AFAM — Alta Formazione Artistica e Musicale);
The options for admission to universities in Italy
Foundation — Preparatory programs in Italy
In order to enter Italian university, one must complete 12 years of secondary school. If this requirement is not met, there are several options:
To enter a university in your own country, study there for one year, and then apply to an Italian university;
To enter any other educational institution (eg. college) in order to fill the missing number of years;
Complete an International Baccalaureate (IB) program or A-Levels;
To enter the preparatory program in Italy — Foundation.
The Foundation courses (corsi propedeutici) are designed specifically for international students to help them bridge the gap between the educational system in Italy and the home country of the applicant, as well as successfully pass the entrance exams before entering the university. The main advantage of such courses, in addition to preparing for studies in Italy, is the fact that many universities allow graduates of their preparatory programs to forgo entrance examinations.
The curriculum usually consists of classes in Italian and/or English, as well as subjects in the chosen direction.
Copy of passport;
Notarized translation into Italian of a certificate of completed secondary education and transcripts with grades;
Vocational education in Italy is represented by Higher technical institutes (Istituti Tecnici Superiori, ITS) and Higher technical training and education (Istruzione e Formazione Tecnica Superiore, IFTS).
IFTS programs are managed by the regional administration, which organizes them in four types of institutions: general and business schools, vocational schools and universities. Such courses are designed for teenagers and adults without any special education and work experience. Students who do not graduate from high school can also enter by passing entrance exams. IFTS graduates receive a certificate of higher technical specialization (certificato di specializzazione tecnica superiore), recognized not only in Italy, but also in other EU countries. IFTS programs do not provide opportunities for further education for students without completed secondary education, but the certificate will allow you to find a job. In addition, earned credits can be transferred for early graduation from high school or the corresponding university program.
ITS are educational institutions created by a university (or its department) or municipal administration. Higher technical institutes are available only to students with completed secondary education. Studying here takes from two to three years, with 30% of this time devoted to internships in Italian companies and abroad. Students who graduate from ITS receive a diploma of superior technician (diploma di tecnico superiore), which allows them to get a job or enter a master’s program in the same or related field.
Bachelor’s in Italy
Bachelor’s degree (Laurea), according to the Bologna process adopted by Italy, is the first stage of higher education.
There are two types of programs at Italian universities: limited and unlimited (open).
Limited enrolment programs use the entrance exam as the main selection criteria. The grades obtained define one's place in the ranking order for further enrolment. Exams can be arranged both online (TOLC) and on campus. The only exception to this rule is the programs of International Communication and Health Management where students are selected based on the average mark in the school certificate. A limited number of places usually exist in medical and architectural areas.
Open admissions programs also require students to take entrance exams, but they rather serve as a way to evaluate the student's level of training, rather than as a selection method. Regardless of the result, the student can participate in the admission procedure. However, the grade obtained during the exam affects the additional requirements (Obblighi Formativi Aggiuntivi, OFA) for the applicant. For example, if a gap in student’s knowledge is identified, the university may obligate the student to attend additional courses or seminars. Unlimited reception is typical for mathematical and technical areas.
Laurea studies last for three years (180 ECTS), during which students must learn about basic scientific concepts and research methods. The curriculum consists of theoretical studies, seminars, lectures, as well as work on their own research paper — the graduation thesis.
Students from EU-countries can apply directly to the chosen higher institutions according to the terms and the requested documentation. In contrast, submission of documents for other international students begins with the so-called "pre-enrolment". For this, applicants must fill out a questionnaire in Italian or English and deliver it along with other documents to the Italian Consulate. Please note that you may choose only one university and only one program for admission.
After that, the Italian embassy will send documents to the university, which will set the deadlines for entrance examinations and decide on the admission status of a student. The next steps include applying for a visa, a trip to Italy to take additional exams and the final decision of the university to enrol (or not enrol) an applicant.
Master’s (Laurea Magistrale)in Italy lasts two years (120 ECTS) or four semesters with summer break in the middle. Students attend basic courses, electives, lectures, and workshops, perform individual and group work. The last academic semester is devoted exclusively to writing a dissertation that should be 100 or more pages long.
Notarized translation (with an apostille) into Italian or English of a bachelor’s diploma and transcripts with grades;
DV (Dichiarazione di valore) of educational certificates (students who receive a diploma in June and cannot complete a DV before the deadline for accepting documents must bring a certificate from the university that they are completing their studies this year).
Documents requested by universities:
Notarized translation (with an apostille) into Italian of a bachelor’s diploma and transcripts with grades;
The curriculum of the completed bachelor’s with an indication of the passed disciplines and the allocated hours;
Portfolio (for areas related to fine art, design, architecture);
An important condition for admission is the conformity of the specialization of the completed undergraduate to the chosen field of master’s degree.
Some areas may require additional exams: for example, for admission to the Polytechnic Institute of Milan (Politecnico di Milano) to the Energy Engineering and Management Engineering programs, it is strongly recommended to pass GRE.
Laurea magistrale a ciclo (Which can’t be considered either bachelor’s or master’s degree) in such areas as medicine, law, engineering, and architecture are equivalent to a master's program, but they last five to six years (300 or 360 ECTS) and do not require bachelor’s degree for admission.
Laurea Magistrale in Italy should be distinguished from Master, which is not a master’s degree, but one-year diploma. Master of the first level can be obtained after Laurea (bachelor’s), and the second level — after Laurea magistrale (master’s). By themselves, they do not replace academic degrees, but together with them, they can facilitate admission into the next stages.
Doctoral studies (Dottorato di Ricerca) is the third level of higher education. Thus, the admission to such programs requires a Master’s degree in the same or related area. Training lasts from 3 to 5 years. The first year is devoted to classes, and the subsequent years are reserved for the student’s own research. In addition, the student may be assigned the duties of a teacher (up to 40 hours per year).
Both European and non-European students submit documents directly to the university without undergoing the "pre-enrolment" procedure.
Copy of the passport;
Notarized translation of a master's degree into Italian or English and transcript with grades;
Postdoctoral studies (Assegno di ricerca) is a continuation of the research and/or pedagogical activities of doctorate graduates. This usually takes two years.
A researcher (Ricercatore a Tempo Determinato) has traditionally been considered the first academic post for young doctors, but now postdoctoral studies are gaining more and more popularity. There are two types of researchers: type A and type B. Ricercatore type A is not required to have previous research/teaching postdoctoral experience. The contract for such a position is initially concluded for three years and then extended for another two. A fairly common way is to first become a ricercatore type A, and then transfer to a type B position. Ricercatore type B is required to have some prior academic experience, and a three-year contract with them is concluded once without the possibility of extension. During these three years, the ricercatore must receive the abilitazione scientifica nazionale (the national scientific qualification) that is required to be promoted.
Associate Professor (Professore associato). In order to receive this title, an academician must provide the academic council with a sufficient number of scientific publications and have the appropriate qualifications. In addition to research and publications, an associate professor has twice as large pedagogical load than researchers.
The Professor (Professore ordinario) is the highest academic rank and highest academic position in Italy. Candidates for the position of professor also need to pass an exam to get the right qualifications. After this, the academic council makes up a list of associate professors who have the opportunity to receive the title of professor in the next four years. The first three years as professors are considered a probationary period (professore straordinario), after which the academician receives a permanent position at the university.
The average salary of a ricercatore is 1,624 USD/month, associate professor — 2,706 USD/month, and professor — 3,897 USD/month.
It is quite difficult for foreigners to get into the academic environment due to the existing language barrier, since most university programs are currently taught in Italian. Nevertheless, universities are gradually starting to open to employees from other countries, even despite the need to learn a language and relatively low wages in the initial stages of a career. It is worth noting that many private universities and faculties of economics in public universities are hiring foreign applicants more willingly.
Scholarships and grants from Italian universities
In Italy, there is a large selection of scholarships and grants available to international students:
State scholarships. The Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation offers scholarships for students of art schools, master’s and doctoral students, as well as individual research grants. Scholarships cover tuition, health insurance and daily expenses. Students can receive financial assistance for three, six, or nine months. Applicants must know the Italian language at A2 level (for English-language programs) and above and be under 35 years old. The application for government scholarships opens in March-April of each year.
University scholarships. Almost all universities in Italy offer foreign and local students various scholarships. For example, the University of Bologna (Università di Bologna) annually gives grants of 11,907 USD to undergraduate and graduate students, and the Technical University of Milan (Politecnico di Milano) — from 5,412 USD to 10,824 USD.
Private grants. Some companies also provide financial assistance to foreign students. EDISU is a regional non-profit organization supporting students who have already entered universities in the administrative area of Piedmont in northwestern Italy. The decision on funding and its amount is made on the basis of the economic situation of the student and his academic achievements. Another organization — ER.GO — was created by the Italian government for students studying in art and music schools in the Emilia-Romagna region.
Student visa to Italy
Citizens of EU and EFTA countries can enter Italy with a valid national identity card or passport. The only procedure they have to follow is registering at the local Ufficio Anagrafe (registry office of the Municipality) upon arrival.
Other non-EU students are required to obtain a long-stay visa to study in Italy for a period of more than 90 days.
List of documents for a student visa to Italy:
Application for a visa;
A travel document, valid for at least three months after the intended date of completion of the program;
Proof of financial viability during your stay in the country (at least 6,445 USD/year);
Proof of available housing in Italy;
An invitation from the university or confirmation of admission.
The visa fees and the complete list of documents vary depending on the country of citizenship. You can check details here. Within 8 days upon arrival, non-EU students must apply for a permit to stay (Permesso di Soggiorno) at the local post office and pay a fee of 109 USD.
According to Italian law, students from EU countries have the same rights to work in Italy as Italian nationals, including full-time employment all year round. Other foreign students with a permit to stay (Permesso di Soggiorno) can work no more than 20 hours a week and 4 hours a day. A mandatory requirement when applying for a job is knowledge of Italian at a high level.
In search of work, students can go to employment centres or seek the help of student employment departments at the university. Most internships are free, but some companies pay students from 500 to 1,082 USD/month.
Non-EU graduates of Italian universities have the right to stay in the country for one year in order to seek employment. After successful employment, foreigners receive a permanent residence permit in Italy for the purpose of work (Nulla Osta al lavoro). Please note that the number of work permits is limited by quotas: in 2019, the immigration service had the right to issue no more than 30,850 of such documents.
You can apply for citizenship after 10 consecutive years of residing in Italy.
Prospects and job opportunities
Italy.Finding employment in Italy is a difficult task, not only for foreigners but also for local residents. In 2016, nearly 50,000 Italians aged 18 to 34 left the country in search of work. The competition for existing positions is incredibly high — tens of thousands of candidates can apply for a single vacancy.
Europe. Despite the fact that there is no universally recognized European standard of education, it will be quite simple to evaluate and recognize the equivalence of the Italian diploma for work or study in another country. Graduates of architectural universities are especially valued — Italian universities in this area are among the top 50 according to the international rating QS.
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