The Linguistic Future of Politecnico di Milano

Politecnico di Milano seal

Newsflash courtesy of The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Italian University Plans to Teach All Courses in English
April 17, 2012, 2:27 pm

Milan’s Politecnico University has sent “shock waves” through Italy’s higher-education establishment by announcing that beginning in 2014 all its courses will be taught in English, reports The Independent. A growing number of courses and degree programs are taught in English in European countries where it is not the native language, often as a bid to attract foreign students, but Italian universities have not been at the forefront of this trend. According to RAI, an Italian broadcaster, foreign students represent just 3.6 percent of Italy’s student population.

RAI reports that a third of the courses at the Politecnico are already offered in English and the university will spend some €3.2-million , or $4.2-million, to attract more foreign academics. Italy’s higher-education minister expressed support for the move, saying that he hoped other institutions would do the same, but one eminent academic at Rome’s La Sapienza criticized the move as “excessive,” according to The Independent.

Given the brevity of this article, I surmise that there is a lot more beneath this decision than what is immediately apparent. Indeed, even the report from The Independent is short on specifics. Reporting from Milan, Michael Day alludes to the complexity of this decision (and the subsequent reactions), but concludes his brief article with a rather sweeping (arguably with rhetorical purpose) indictment of the entire system of Italian higher education.

Despite having some of the oldest universities in the world in cities such as Bologna, not one Italian college appears among the world’s top 200. Nepotism and closed-shop recruitment of staff have largely been blamed.

Unfortunately, Day doesn’t delve into the decision-making processes and/or university rationale. Certainly a short article (so too is the offering from CHE), I don’t expect Day to drone on about the state of the 21st century academy, but he could offer a hyperlink or two (it is the 21st century after all). If you’d like to know a bit more about PoliMi’s linguistic shift, check out this piece from the Italian edition of Wired (a similar article from RAI can be found here).

Although the staff writer relies upon some heavy-handed Shakespeare versus Dante language “Dante cede il passo a Shakespeare nelle aule dell’ultimo biennio e die dottorati” (“Dante gives way to Shakespeare in the classrooms of the last two years and doctorates”), the article does more thoroughly address the issues of perceived economic advantage (nationally and institutionally), strengthened intellectual competitiveness, and operation within the confines dominant language of science (i.e. English), behind the decision (clearly there remains a lot to unpack in this sentence, let alone the entire decision). Although himself a strong supporter of the move to English, Rector Giovanni Azzone points out the potential drawbacks for the Italian language and mild concerns of linguistic (and thus ideological) colonialism. Rector Azzone also mentions the language and career benefits for domestic Italian graduates as well as the appeal to foreign students with an interest in Italian culture or PoliMi curriculum. For more about PoliMi’s ongoing international recruitment efforts, be sure to look at their rather robust Polinternational website.

Certainly not an easy decision. I imagine there will be more press coverage as the story gathers internet momentum. Definitely something to keep in mind during our upcoming visit to Politecnico di Milano in May. Any initial thoughts from readers?

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