Italy has 34 universities in the 2020 QS World University Rankings, five more than last year. Within Europe, that puts it ahead of France (with 31) and Spain (27), but well behind the UK (84) or Germany (47).
According to the ranking, which measures factors including the opinions of academics and employers, class sizes and the number of international students, the best Italian university is the Politecnico di Milano, which comes 149th out of around 1,000 institutions worldwide and top in Italy for the fifth year in a row.
The biggest technical university in Italy, Milan's Polytecnico scores highly for research and for its reputation with employers, on which it comes 61st in the world. It also does well with international students, with more than 100 countries represented in the student body and almost all postgraduate courses offered in English.
Next up are the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa and the University of Bologna, which are tied for 177th place.
Sant'Anna, which specializes in applied sciences, is highly rated for its top-notch research – on which it comes 10th in the world – and has more faculty per student than most other Italian universities. Meanwhile historic UniBo enjoys a strong reputation among academics and in recent years has attracted more EU funding for research and innovation than any other Italian institution.
Here are the rest of the top ten in Italy:
The University of Florence is Italy's most improved, climbing more than 50 places from the bottom 500 last year to 448th today, while the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan fell more than 20 spots in the opposite direction. And the universities of Salerno, Udine and Parma, as well as Bari's Politecnico, made it into the ranking for the first time.
Other Italian universities score particularly well in certain categories, with most of Italy's best marks coming for research. Employers ranked Milan's Bocconi University, which as a specialist business and law school isn't included in the overall ranking, 70th in the world for its highly hireable graduates, while Pisa's Scuola Normale Superiore came 16th worldwide for an excellent ratio of faculty to students.
Most Italian universities, however, scored poorly on class sizes, with top-ranked Politecnico di Milano employing just over 1,500 faculty for nearly 36,000 students. (The Scuola Normale Superiore, for comparison, has around 190 academics for 560 students.)
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Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
Those considering studying at one of Italy's large public universities should be prepared for "a big, relatively anonymous university experience", says Lucas Mennella, a college counsellor at St Stephen's School in Rome.
"If you're coming from Europe, there's not going to be a big difference from other state universities: big classes, mostly lectures, limited contact with your professors, and your whole grade is an exam," he tells The Local.
"But if you're coming from the US, Italian public universities don't tend to provide all the add-ons that American universities have – like gyms, associations, anything like that."
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Students might also find themselves having to do some extra legwork to impress employers.
"If you were to [do an undergraduate degree in] Bologna or somewhere like that, it's perfectly fine but there aren't very good job prospects coming out of it," Mennella says. "You basically have to do a masters to be competitive. And they don't usually help you find internships or anything like that."
Many of his students choose to go abroad for their degrees, he says, but within Italy, Politecnico di Milano, Bocconi and the private LUISS in Rome are usually the top choices.
And for people looking to study abroad in Italy, there are several American universities either based in Italy or with campuses here – John Cabot University, the American University of Rome and Temple University Rome to name just a few – where students can find American-style tuition, albeit for much higher American prices.