How have Italian universities changed in the last 10 years? According to Gianfranco Viesti, Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Bari, the picture is not at all reassuring. As such, his latest book, published by Laterza, has the eloquent title, La Laurea Negata or, Denied Degrees.
Professor Viesti, what does this mean?
This work is based on a report that the RED Foundation published two years ago. The facts are clear: the Italian university sector is 20% smaller than it was 10 years ago. And that’s not good news.
In what way is it “smaller”?
The staff turnover freeze, i.e. the limits placed on how many staff can be hired in Italian universities, reduced the number of lecturers from 63,000 to 49,000 between 2008 and 2016. But there are also fewer courses and fewer students, in contrast with what we might assume.
And yet in a time of employment crisis, it has been said that the university system has become a waiting room for young people.
This theory was going around in the 70s but in these momentous times it’s not the case. And that’s for one simple reason: the cost of our universities is always going up and increasing numbers of people can’t afford to attend at all.
Let’s get things straight. Have Italian politics followed a coherent policy on higher education?
Yes, irrespective of each government’s political sway, we can say that they have all been heading in the same direction. Constant funding cuts, however, have meant that state universities depend on private sponsors for 30% of their funding. This leads to a dangerous and unbalanced concentration of universities in the country’s central and northern regions.
The criteria for distributing state funding has changed, but there is still a huge lack of transparency.
And the students have paid the price.
Especially the less well off: as the costs have increased, investment in the right to study has remained the same. And it’s not just a problem with fees, it’s also a matter of all the other expenses that a student, who perhaps moved away from home, needs to be able to afford. This leads to nothing but an increase in social inequality and leaves entire economic and geographical groups behind. But as well as merit, there’s also an issue when it comes to method.
In the last 10 years, policy has transformed university, without the majority of the general public even realising, through making bureaucratic changes that are very technical and gradual - almost as if avoiding any accountability. A topic such as this deserves to be put up for debate in parliament.
Is there a correct way to invest in university education?
Aside from the need to increase funding, a step in the right direction has already been taken because the funds are no longer distributed among universities in the old way (in which they were given to those who had traditionally received them in the past), but according to a system of criteria. The problem is that those criteria are not very transparent and, if we want to see the benefits, they need to be reformed. Otherwise, the feeling will remain that the whole system works on the basis of a biased funding system, towards this university or that one.
We often hear about a contradiction between what our young people are studying and the requirements of the labour market.
I would argue against the idea that we need to invest more in “what’s trending at the time”. First and foremost, universities need to provide information and teach skills that can withstand the test of time. Then, of course, this needs to be reconciled with the possibility of being able to use a degree immediately, but without having to give up certain abilities to do so.