From opera at La Scala to football at the San Siro stadium, from the catwalks of fashion week to the soaring architecture of the cathedral, Milan is crowded with Italian icons.
Which makes it even more of a cultural earthquake that one of Italy’s leading universities – the Politecnico di Milano – is going to switch to the English language.
The university has announced that from 2014 most of its degree courses – including all its graduate courses – will be taught and assessed entirely in English rather than Italian.
The waters of globalisation are rising around higher education – and the university believes that if it remains Italian-speaking it risks isolation and will be unable to compete as an international institution.
“We strongly believe our classes should be international classes – and the only way to have international classes is to use the English language,” says the university’s rector, Giovanni Azzone.
Italy might have been the cradle of the last great global language – Latin – but now this university is planning to adopt English as the new common language.
‘Window of change’
“Universities are in a more competitive world, if you want to stay with the other global universities – you have no other choice,” says Professor Azzone.
He says that his university’s experiment will “open up a window of change for other universities”, predicting that in five to 10 years other Italian universities with global ambitions will also switch to English.
This is one of the oldest universities in Milan and a flagship institution for science, engineering and architecture, which lays claim to a Nobel prize winner. Almost one in three of all Italy’s architects are claimed as graduates. So this is a significant step.
But what is driving this cultural change? Is it the intellectual equivalent of pop bands like Abba singing in English to reach a wider market?
Professor Azzone says a university wants to reach the widest market in ideas – and English has become the language of higher education, particularly in science and engineering.
“I would have preferred if Italian was the common language, it would have been easier for me – but we have to accept real life,” he says.
When English is the language of international business, he also believes that learning in English will make his students more employable.
These are the days of the curriculum vitae rather than the dolce vita.
“It’s very important for our students not only to have very good technical skills, but also to work in an international environment.”
The need to attract overseas students and researchers, including from the UK and non-English speaking countries, is another important reason for switching to English as the primary language.
“We are very proud of our city and culture, but we acknowledge that the Italian language is an entry barrier for overseas students,” he says, particularly when recruiting from places such as China and India.
“They can be Italian students, studying in an Italian culture, but in an international language,” says Professor Azzone.
There is also the growing impact of university league tables. Even if academics question their objectivity they have become increasingly important in how universities market themselves.
And the use of English, particularly for research, is seen as helping to raise visibility in international rankings.
But Professor Azzone also pointed to the bigger economic geography of higher education.
European universities face being caught between two competing powers – the wealthy heavy weights in the United States and the rising countries of Asia.
Professor Azzone says there is a stark choice between becoming isolated and parochial or trying to compete with these academic superpowers – and he argues that this will require European universities to work together.
“We have to give a sense that we are not a dying country – but we are not large enough to have a critical mass. We need to have a European alliance of strong universities.”
The change to English will mean new text books, lectures, course materials. There will be 3m euros for recruiting additional academic staff.
But is there also a cultural cost here? The university, located in Piazza Leonardo da Vinci, with its mellow early summer colours and the sounds of scooters and trams, is going to be echoing with international English.
Opponents among the academic staff to this change in language are organising a protest petition – and they claim the support of 300 professors and assistant professors.
Professor Emilio Matricciani has launched an Appeal for Freedom of Teaching – which argues that it is wrong in principle for an Italian public university to force students and staff to use English.
He says that something of the precision and quality of teaching and learning will be lost in translation, when both teachers and students are using a second language.
“Speaking Italian to our countrymen is like watching a movie in colour, high definition, very clear pictures. On the contrary, speaking English to them, even with our best effort, is, on the average, like watching a movie in black and white, with very poor definition, with blurred pictures,” says Professor Matricciani.
But it’s evident how much English already pervades the city.
On the local metro and railway, announcements are in Italian and English and Italian language websites offer English alternatives. A job fair at the university is promoted with banners announcing “Career day”.
Italian job, English words
Anna Realini, studying for a masters degree in energy engineering, says she has to use English when writing emails in her internship with an Italian company – and is criticised if she uses Italian.
But she says she agrees with the move to English as likely to improve her career prospects: “I agree with the choice… If our university gives us the tools to use our knowledge all over the world it is better.”
She also says it’s a more affordable way for Italian students to learn in an international environment, without the cost of studying overseas.
Luca Maggiolini Cacciamani, studying automation engineering, also accepts the necessity. “Right now English is the new common language. We like our language, but we can see it’s important to use a common language when sharing research. So it’s a good idea.”
But there were warnings of a “major concern” raised by Antonello Cherubini, studying mechanical engineering.
He says that studying in China and the United States showed him the strength of Italian teaching – and he wants to ensure that this is not lost.
“Italian students often do not realise how good we are – and there is a risk that the main tool we have to communicate, the language, could be in danger,” he says.
There had to be assurances about the standard of English used by staff, he said.
The switch to English in this Milanese university is a dramatic example of a wider pattern.
There are a growing number of degree courses taught in English in Scandinavia, northern and central Europe.
Nic Mitchell, founder of De la Cour Communications, which specialises in European higher education, says there are more than 4,500 university courses now being taught in English in continental Europe.
This is expanding in Asia, with countries such as South Korea using more English.
“There is no question but that English is rapidly expanding as a language of instruction worldwide,” says Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.
He says that it accompanies the push by universities and governments to internationalise.
But Professor Altbach says there are also likely to be losses.
“Less will be written in local languages and the culture may be weakened. And fewer textbooks will be written in local languages. Intellectual life may well be weakened.”
William Lawton, director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, says the accelerating use of English is pushed by governments wanting to create regional education hubs.
When such research centres are established in the Middle East and Asia, often with overseas universities, the default language is likely to be English.
Professor Azzone says for his university this is a vital decision.
“It’s extremely important, at present you have two choices. You can either stay isolated in your own country – which is not realistic in a global world.
“The other is to open up and be able to work in an international context. Either our university will understand that or else our country will be isolated, which is unbearable for a country like Italy.”