The threat of increased fees for Italian students looks set to become a reality. As universities wrestle with shrinking state funding, budget shortfalls and the threat of court action, the government headed by Mario Monti is seeking a reform package aimed at liberalising the economy and jump-starting growth.
Italy’s public universities are funded largely by the state, with a 20% limit on the share of their costs that can be met from student fees. This 20% ceiling is enshrined in a 1997 law.
But in practice – and following public funding cuts totalling €1.5 billion (US$2 billion) from 2008-13 – more than half of Italy’s public tertiary institutions have broken through the 20% barrier, according to the national Union of University Students, UDU.
Last year students successfully sued the University of Pavia over ‘illegal’ fees and the regional administrative court of Milan ordered the university to repay €1.7 million in November.
Other cases have recently been initiated by student organisations in Ferrara and Modena. And if similar actions were successful in all institutions currently exceeding the 20% limit, Italian universities could be forced to repay as much as €218 million, argued the UDU.
Last month the Italian Rectors Association advanced four proposals to change the student fee ceiling, including introducing family income-tested fees or even abrogating the 20% law.
UDU national coordinator Michele Orezzi said the union was strongly against raising or abolishing the fee ceiling and that protest action could be expected across the country if the proposals were to go ahead.
“We have some of the highest student fees in Europe, as well as the lowest rates of student mobility and the lowest number of graduates per capita,” Orezzi said.
“Raising fees represents a huge social obstacle to study. Just think that we have one in four students who technically qualify for study grants but there are not sufficient funds to finance them. That’s where we should be investing.”
Although Italy’s fees are high compared to some other European and Scandinavian countries, average tuition fees are still below US$2,000 a year according to the OECD 2011 Education at a Glance report.
Many analysts believe raising fees, with means-tested student loan schemes, could in the long run benefit students and institutions alike.
Economics professor and analyst Andrea Ichino of the University of Bologna has written widely on the need to reform Italian universities’ funding through income-contingent student loans.
“The current system of public funding is inefficient and generates profound inequities: the rich go to university more than the poor but tuition fees are not differentiated by family income, and so by default poor families actually fund university for the rich,” he said.
He said that a two-pronged approach was needed.
Universities should have the ability to set fees autonomously, with differentiation according to family income, in order to have the resources to attract the best teachers, even from abroad, and to acquire the most advanced resources without bureaucratic limitations. Students should be given the opportunity to choose between universities by using income-contingent loans that cover university fees as well as moving costs, he argued.
Professor Luca Petruzzellis, director of marketing studies at the University of Bari, who has extensively researched students' university choices, agreed that increasing fees could have more positive than negative effects.
“Raising student fees is sure to have an impact, as all economic factors do on student choices,” he said. “However, the experience I have had in the United States and England leads me to believe that this can be a virtuous cycle.
"At the outset fee rises seem like a burden, but in the long run it means that services are improved and students become more responsible and loyal towards their institution because the experience they have there is a more positive one.”
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