Higher education reforms stall as Monti government totters

With Italy tottering on the brink of a political crisis that could topple the technocrat government of Mario Monti before Christmas, proposed higher education reforms will probably be stalled at least until a new government is formed following Spring elections – and perhaps for longer.

Education Minister Francesco Profumo, who is also rector of Politecnico di Torino and has driven the reform proposals, has said he will not stay in his job following the polls and could even leave before the New Year.

Profumo wants to nationalise admission rankings for courses with limited places such as medicine. Candidates must currently sit an entrance exam for courses with high demand and limited places; this year, more than 77,000 candidates sat a medicine and orthodontics admission exam for 11,000 places.

But universities can set their own grade minimums, leading to discrepancies in the quality of students admitted nationwide. Place allocations can also be contested on appeal by students passing the exam, but they may still be excluded because there are no places left.

As a result, a standardised ‘collegial’ ranking system has been trialled on a regional level, and Profumo wants to extend this nationally.

Also under threat of being stalled are reforms approved earlier this year to change PhD programmes, allowing them to be run outside universities and in collaboration with industry to make research more relevant.

Reforms have support

However, Italian academics speaking to University World News predicted that while they would be delayed, these reforms ultimately would be enacted because they have so much support.

Andrea Mariuzzo, a specialist researcher at the higher education institute Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa who has written widely on the issue of university reform, said that a new government would have to go further and “give answers to the many open questions that remain unresolved in the big picture of university politics”.

One of these, he said, is improving the lot of thousands of “precarious” academics who undertake a large proportion of the teaching and research load while working on temporary contracts, but whose academic careers are blocked as shrinking university budgets offer little hope of tenure.

Professor Fiorella Kostoris, a board member of the National Agency for the Evaluation of Universities and Research Institutes, said future reforms should look at four main issues facing Italian universities.

“The first is that too few students, as a percentage of the whole demographic, enrol in university. The second is our dropout rate, which is very high, and represents a cost [both to the individual and to the institution] that produces no result.

“The third problem is the delay in graduating. Half of students do not graduate within three years from their bachelor degrees, taking at least four, while a third of students are only completing their bachelor studies after five, six or even 10 years.”

Kostoris said a fourth problem was that the quality of study could be compromised by “an inadequate progression of the subjects studied”, because students are allowed to choose when they will take certain exams, choosing core subject exams only at the end of their studies.

Drop in enrolments

Meanwhile, data have emerged showing that Italian universities may have to modernise sooner rather than later to keep up with student demands.

The Censis Institute, one of Italy’s leading social research centres, released its 2012 annual report last week and warned that the university sector had seen a 6.5% drop overall in enrolments since 2006, irrespective of demographic variations.

Humanities and social sciences had the biggest losses and, while some technical-scientific faculties increased enrolments, many students appear to be taking up other options for post-secondary education, such as Italy’s new technical institutes of higher education – post-secondary schools with a focus on specific technology areas and workplace training.

Kostoris said that the phenomenon of falling university enrolments had not been sufficiently analysed, but that economic factors were clearly an issue. “University fees are too low to sufficiently contribute to the cost of study, but at the same time they are too high for the vast majority of families who live on a modest income.”

She said that a degree was no longer a guarantee of well-remunerated employment in Italy, and overall university graduate employment rates remained low when compared to their peers with just a high school diploma.

Her analysis was echoed by Mariuzzo. He said that faculties such as humanities and the social sciences had not concentrated sufficiently on effective training for the job market.

“But our production system is also to blame. Our companies have a lower demand for qualified staff than other developed countries, because they have a lower value-added production and do not count on human capital to compete globally,” he said.

Mariuzzo added that career choice in Italy was still often determined by family professions, especially in times of economic difficulty where entering an established family business such as a restaurant, bar or other activity was safer than a course with uncertain job prospects.

“The situation in the long run will not improve if you do begin providing more professionally orientated training in universities on the one hand, and if you do not create a more open labour market for the integration of highly qualified personnel on the other.

“The two paths must be taken together,” he said.