Structure

The Italian University system is divided in Universitá. Usually there is only one Universitá per city, with the notable exception of Rome that has three, and of Milano and Torino that have a Universitá and a Politecnico.
Within an Universitá there are Facoltá; for example, in the University of Milan (real name: Universitá degli Studi di Milano, nickname: La Statale) there is a Facoltá di Medicina, Facoltá di Lettere, Facoltá di Scienze.
A Facoltá contains Corsi di Laurea. The Laurea is the main title that the University gives, and a Corso di Laurea corresponds approximately to a Master's subject area: for example, the Facoltá di Scienze contains the Corsi di Laurea of Biology, Computer Science, Mathematics, Geology, Chemistry etc.

So, you enroll at a University, but the thing you deal with daily is actually your Corso di Laurea (or your Facoltá). This is important: most Italian Universities don't have a campus, but rather reside in historical buildings sprinkled all over town. During my studies in Milan, for example, I rarely if ever saw the beautiful Renaissance buildings where the humanists study; as a soulless scientist, my lot was the soulless area of Cittá Studi.

Getting in

To enter the Italian University, any one, you must have a Diploma di Maturitá. This attests that you went through the Italian School System and emerged after a total of 5+3+5=13 years of schooling. This guarantees very little, other than you are basically literate and can do simple mathematical operations when given plenty of time.
Other than your diploma, very little is required; tuition is very very very cheap, and normally depends on your family's income level. Even the highest possible tuition is not beyond 1500 USD. Normally there is no such thing as student housing, though (and no campus, as I said before). This means that, unless you are living with your parents, you have to find a house and enter the eternal roommate saga.
Some Corsi di Laurea have entrance tests, but most do not. It does not matter how many people want to enter the first year of Biology: they all get in. And then the system crunches them, and we will see how.

Let me make this clear again: any 5 years high school gives access to any corso di laurea. Suppose you studied to be a ship pilot (no Latin, no Greek): you want to enroll in Classical Letters? No problem.
You studied a 3 years school in cookery, and then added 2 years of "complementary" courses; and you can enroll in Mathematics!
Once what you had studied in high school conditioned your possible choices at University, but things have changed. The professors, though, have decided to ignore the fact: at Classical Letters they just suppose that you already know Latin and Greek. And in my course of Computer Science, they supposed that you knew differential equations, since they used them for the first year course in Physics.
I know, it is a very beautiful system.

This is all so confusing

Anyway, when you enter the Italian University, a new life begins. Everything is very different from high school.
In the rest of this writeup I will be writing about the Italian state University; private universities differ in some measure.
The first main difference is that you lose the concept of a nice, cozy class with 20 people. You are thrown in what is known as a "corso". First year corsi usually have from one to three hundred students, thanks to the University permissive admission policy.
And then, there is another big difference: in high school your teacher gives you tests, about 20 per year. If you fail one, it is not a big deal, in a sense you have many chances.
Not only that, if you fail a test, it works also as a warning signal that the system gives you: you are slacking, get your ass in gear, or you may have to repeat the year.
But University is different: in most Italian universities you attend the classes for six months or one year. During this period of time, the system totally ignores you. There is no attendance requirement. If you want to be the King of Slack and spend all your time in a bar, it is your own damn problem; if you are a genius, more power to you.
The University, usually, does not attempt to make you go to class. In fact, many professors say at the beginning of the course that, if you don't feel like going to class you should definitely stay home.
So, you spend some months quite happily, attending classes or not, depending on your whim. And then the University reveals its violent side: exam day. For most courses, you get a single big exam that evaluates you on the whole subject. If you pass, great. If you fail, see you at the next session - Facoltá and universities differ greatly on the frequency of the exam sessions; there can be anything from three to six session per year.

Double Dipping the Student in Boiling Tar

Due to the large number of students, especially in the first years, the the professor attempts to screen out the students that will never make it. This is why most exams have a prerequisite written test - in fact the Calculus I exam feels more like 2 exams, a written one about practical calculus, derivatives, integrals, and all that: and an oral, completely theoretical, calculus exam, centered on demonstrating theorems.
Exams are administered by the professor of your course, assisted by a gaggle of semi-official TA-but-not-quite figures, mostly used to evaluate written tests.

Corsi di Laurea differ in the number of courses you have to attend (or, more exactly, in the number of exams you have to take). Mathematics only requires 16, and it officially lasts 4 years. Engineering requires around 26 and it take (again, officially) 5 years. Medicine is longest, with an official duration of 6 years.
Why all this official duration thing? Well, since the taxes are cheap and the University timetable is not always realistic, and because of the uncertainties of life (marriage, jobs ...) the majority of students take more time than what the University says. When you have exceeded the official number of years you are said to be fuori corso (as opposed to be in corso). Your taxes get strangely cheaper.
Yours truly took 10 years to graduate in what should have been a 4 years Computer Science Laurea. Notice though that the average time taken is 7.4 years, and that I started working during my third year.

Ejection and Quality Stamp

Notice that the process described above induces a large amounts of students to renounce; in the Politecnico Engineering degree in Milan, only 25% of the students complete the course. Yes, that's only one quarter, and this figure is typical of scientific studies as well. The rest are left with a half-career, something that employers don't particularly like, and that often produces a glass ceiling effect.
In Humanities and Law the situation is somewhat better, but all the same it is about one half of the enrolled students that make it to their Laurea.

When you have taken all your requisite courses (and passed all their exams), you can take the Esame di Laurea. Most Corsi di Laurea require you to write a thesis, and it is supposed to be an original contribution to the field, in the form of a 100 to 200 pages monography. Some places reduce the requisite to a tesina (literally, little thesis), or they let you go with a single, summarizing, big exam.
During all your career your exams are scored in (I know it is a bit strange) thirtieths. You can also get a lode, so the maximum score in a single exam is trenta e lode (thirty cum laude).
These scores, plus the score the committee gives to your thesis form your final Laurea score.

The thesis is usually defended (in Italian we talk of the discussione della tesi) in front of a large audience, including families and friends. And what do you defend it from, you ask: from your thesis committee.
The thesis committee includes your professor, the relatore and an advocatus diaboli, the controrelatore, that is supposed to read the thesis with a critical eye.
After you have sweated your way through the defense (and some of them are murderous), the commitee retires in conclave and gives you a score, bizarrely expressed in one-hundred-an-tenths. Yes, fractions of 110; except at the Politecnico, that scores slightly more rationally in hundredths.

One size used to fit all

Up to about 12 years ago, this was it. We had no BS, no Master's Degree, no PhDs: you either had a Laurea (which entitles you to be called Dottor) or not.
Recently, in an effort to both uniformate with European habits, and to produce better researchers, a thing called Laurea breve (short laurea, basically a BS) has been introduced, along with PhD courses.
The PhD, though, is still foreign to Italian culture; its official name is Dottorato di Ricerca (research doctorate), there are very few slots available, and the industry doesn't really know what to do with PhDs.
In my own experience, the PhDs in Italy, at least in scientific fields, are taken by the intensely theoretical types; many Italians, due to scarcity of PhD programs in Italy (and also to their occasionally dubious quality) continue their education abroad. I mean, if you are going to suffer over a Biology PhD for at least four years, you want your title to come from a prestigious US university.

Professors are hired through a strange system. Full professors (called professori ordinari) and associate professors are hired (and instantly tenured, as it were) with national concorsi, where personal influence, political pressure and occasionally corruption reign.
Contract professors are hired locally and payed quite poorly.

Practicalities

Would I advise you to study in Italy? Well, for sure it is cheap. And for some studies, like humanities, architecture and some branches of the science it is quite good. But you have to remember that you are on your own: there are no tutors, no guidance counsellors, no Student Union, no stadium, no sports, and in sum many of the things that the US student associates with University life are not there.
You have to be an independent person in order to survive in Italian university; you need to swoop down on the copy shop with the bootleg class notes that are absolutely vital to passing the exam. Nobody will remind you of deadlines. Professors and secretaries will treat you like a non-entity during your first years; eventually, relationships improve.
But the level of informality that reigns in some US universities is never reached in Italy. The professor is always addressed as "Professor", and spoken to in the formal lei style. The TAs are called "Dottore". It is a rare professor, that, even after graduation, encourages familiarity in the ex-student.
Another important fact is that the University operates in Italian: all foreign students are required to prove their linguistic competence, or to take a one-year intensive course at some specialized universities like Copertino and Siena.

Where will you find Italian universities? Not necessarily in big cities. Remember, Italy was born of the fusion of many little statelets, most of them with proud academic traditions. This is why nowadays you find in Parma a University that has a size and prestige comparable to the University of Turin - and Turin is easily ten times the size of Parma.
In fact, for studying a small city may be preferable: it is easier to get around and the environment is less aggressive. In some cases, though, you have no choice: if you want to study Arabic in Italy it is either Venice or Naples, and neither is a very easy city for living.

Some history

University was actually invented in Italy. Springing from informal centers of learning associated with cathedrals during the Middle Ages, Universities appeared after the year 1000 AD.
The first one opened in Salerno, but it remained a medical school: then came Bologna, that opened in 1080 as a general University covering all the areas of knowledge (that is, according to the medieval vision of knowledge, still strongly Aristotelic). The University of Bologna still boasts of some wonderful ancient buildings that include an anathomical teatre and the very old Library of the Archiginnasio.
Then came Padua, Florence and Rome.

One old University tradition is goliardia, that's to say "student license". Students carouse when they enroll (they are called matricole), and they are subjected to gross, Rabelaisian pranks when they graduate.

I saw with my eyes a young couple of recent graduates in Padua: they were standing in the central market square (Piazza delle Erbe), in their underwear, holding large eels and being ducked in a small fountain.
On their backs someone had drawn obscene sentences and large, spurting, cocks. Apparently everybody was having a good time, including the victims.
A slightly more palatable tradition that I witnessed is that the matricole will invade and take over the high schools of the town once a year, and "free" the students.

In some towns, the students (under the leadership of the oldest fuori corso, called The Duke) organize entertainments for the newly enrolled students. Porn cinemas are visited, wine is drunk, bawdy songs and rhymes are sung. Again, very medieval.

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