According to the Italian Students' Union (UDS), "more than 400,000 thousand students are rallying throughout Italy."
Police in riot gear blocked all entrances to the Chamber of Deputies, where ministers prepared to vote on the reforms, and officers were forced to redirect traffic as the city centre was brought to a standstill in several areas.
Bewildered tourists looked on as traffic was rerouted through the area around the Trevi Fountain, which is usually only open to pedestrians.
"Hundreds of initiatives against the university reforms are being organised throughout the country: sit-ins in faculties, on roofs and monuments as well as traffic disruption," the UDS said in a statement.
"These initiatives have just one aim: to block the proposed cuts and reforms and save the public university from death," it added.
Thousands of students had gathered early in the morning at the Sapienza University, before marching towards Rome's historic centre under a banner saying: "What Future in this Rubble?"
Protesters disrupted traffic in other major Italian cities across the country, from Turin to Palermo, while students blocked the tracks at stations in Milan, Pisa and Venice.
In Naples, protesters took advantage of the garbage crisis to throw the debris lining the streets at the doors of the regional government office.
Students and academics are outraged over cuts of around $12 billion and 130,000 jobs in the education system that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government has vowed to carry out by 2013.