Italy's universities - the way out

Italy's universities - the way out
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Young Italians aren’t going to university like they used to. There are 58,000 fewer students pursuing degrees than ten years ago. This is a drop of 17%.

But while some say there isn’t any point in studying, others swear by it. Erica Lenzi, 22, is already qualified in architecture. Now she’s enrolled in engineering.

What would Erica like her government to do?

“Invest,” she said, “in the teachers and in the students. Paying for university doesn’t mean covering the fees and that’s that; it’s materials, time and what comes out of a family’s pocket to make it happen.”

The government has not put more money in. Basic university funding has been cut by more than 15 percent since 2008 – by well over a billion euros. Italy has 68 public universities. Thirty of them are nearly bankrupt. The Minister of Education begged for money to head this off in December, when the national budget was being decided. He asked for 400 million euros but got 100.

According to Giovanni Azzone, the rector of the largest technical university in Italy, Politecnico di Milano, a lot of the cutting is counterproductive. He said: “It might prod some universities to use money more wisely, but when one has already made that effort it means services go: the chance for students to go on foreign exchanges for instance. It also means classrooms are more crowded than ever, and the professor-student ratio is already very high in Italian universities.”

Very few of today’s students plan to make university their career.

A lot leave the country, because abroad they find they will stand a better chance of being hired for their merits, while in the Italian academic world they’re discouraged by influence peddling and favouritism, with a lot of scholars and few openings. Milan Professor Luisa Collina agreed there aren’t many jobs to go around.

“A university career is only for a few. It’s interesting. It attracts a lot of young talent. But the number of places is limited – even more limited lately.”

Brains have been draining out of Italy for a long time, that’s not new. But the lost earning potential for Italy is now around a billion euros per year.

That’s the capital generated by the hundreds of patents that top Italian researchers have registered abroad. That is projected to accelerate.

Even so, the Italian research budget last year was only 13 million euros, after it was 50 million a year from 2008 to 2011.

Some are also concerned about how many Italians are getting degrees these days; Italy is below average, according to the OECD – near the bottom of a ranking of 36 countries it’s 34th.

Fewer than a one out of five Italians in their early thirties has a degree, whereas the European average is closer to one out of three.

Getting on the university employment ladder generally takes years of sacrifice, working for little or no pay.

Sociologist Massimiliano Vaira, 46, finally got a full time research position eight years ago.

He told us there’s a widespread feeling education is worthless – education and culture. He said: “A minister recently justified spending cuts, more or less by saying, ‘Well, culture doesn’t put food on your table.’”

How influential is the Ministry of Education and Research?

Vaira said it hasn’t done anything in the last ten years, under the reigning Ministry of the Economy.

A little over two years ago, with the country under pressure to reduce public debt, legislation was passed which cut the number of university courses and faculties and reduced funding for grants.

Opposition voices insisted that a return to prosperity lay through university education – upward and onward. But securing a knowledge-based economy lost political ground, and now nearly half the universities are broke. Sceptics fear that, because of this, an institution of excellence some of whose foundations are centuries old may be on the way out.

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