Uncompetitive pay is behind exodus of academics in Italy

Despite higher education becoming widely recognised as an international market for researchers and other academic professionals as well as for students, uncompetitive salaries in Italy are causing a brain drain, particularly among young talent coming out of Italian universities, and are making the country less attractive to foreign researchers.

That’s according to a new report titled The Attractiveness of European Higher Education Systems: A comparative analysis of faculty remuneration and career paths, which gives a detailed and illuminating insight into the career prospects as well as the pay and conditions of academics in three European Union countries – Italy, France and Germany – and the United Kingdom.

Published as part of the Research and Occasional Paper Series (ROPS) by the Center for Studies in Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley, the study was sponsored by the CRUI, the Conference of Italian University Rectors.

Co-authored by three researchers at the University of Bergamo in Italy – Alice Civera, Michele Meoli and Stefano Paleari – together with Erik Lehmann, a professor from the University of Augsburg in Germany, it is a response to growing concerns in Italy over the brain drain to other countries.

The ROPS report from Berkeley is an abridged version in English of the full study published in Italian, which is under consideration as part of a review of conditions in Italian higher education by the Italian rectors’ and the Italian parliament.

Differences between countries

“We wanted to create a comparative study to look at remuneration of academics at different stages in their careers, and why so many were choosing to move abroad from Italy, in particular, to improve their career prospects,” Associate Professor Meoli told University World News.

He has first-hand experience of the problem as he is trying to recruit an engineer interested in an academic career and has been facing a real challenge as potential early career researchers are enticed not just to universities in northern Europe, but also to the private sector in Italy which pays far higher salaries.

“It has always been a phenomenon, but it’s getting more extreme,” he said.

“We decided to do the study because a comparative study was missing and it was clear from a visit to Berkeley to discuss the project that some people in the United States viewed European higher education as just one system and didn’t realise the considerable differences from country to country.”

The study highlights that while the international market for skilled educators is expected to grow, with increased movement across borders, not all higher education systems in Europe are equal in the way they treat their workforce, especially in southern Europe where academics in public universities are civil servants and there is a lack of the flexibility needed to attract fresh talent.

Meoli told University World News: “While the UK may not be flourishing to the extent it was, its higher education system has the flexibility to make market adjustments related to market conditions.

“That doesn’t happen in Italy, where a professor of engineering in Milan gets the same remuneration as a professor of humanities in another area of Italy. There’s no taking account of the different cost of living in different areas, or shortages in particular areas of expertise.

“Our remuneration system is too rigid and while we are trying to attract researchers back to Italy who have been abroad for a few years through strong tax incentives for a certain number of years, it is leading to disparity, with people being paid different salaries for doing the same job in Italian universities.

“In our view, using the tax system to attract talent is a myopic attempt to tackle a real problem. What is needed are more competitive salaries and mobility packages to help people coming to work in academia in Italy. At the moment they don’t receive any support in finding accommodation or support for their families to get integrated and the bureaucracy is also very off-putting.

“There are similar problems in France, but there are countries that have overcome these bureaucratic difficulties, such as Germany,” Meoli said.

The UK was included in the study despite its approach to higher education being quite different from that in continental Europe as Britain continues to attract academics from Europe despite the added complications of relocating caused by Brexit, explained Meoli.


The study compares gross and net salaries (after tax) for the three main academic salary levels – firstly, for lecturers in the UK, equal to junior professor in Germany or RTD-B in the Italian system; secondly, UK senior lecturers (including readers and associate professors) comparable with W2 professor in Germany, maître de conférences in France and associate professor in Italy; and finally for professors in the UK system, W3 professor in Germany, professeur des universités in France and full professor in Italy.

All European countries under analysis distinguish between a fixed and a variable component in salaries, except Italy which has only the fixed component. The variable component is established by law in France, while it can be negotiated in Germany and the UK, where on average it is 20% of the base salary, according to the study.

In France and Germany, welfare policies in favour of families and geographical location are of prominent importance, with living costs taken into consideration.

“By contrast, what is relevant in the UK to the salary determination is the academic discipline,” said the report.

In the UK, France and Germany a monetary bonus is expected for outstanding research production, “which makes the commitment to research a clearly incentivised behaviour”.

Looking at the average gross salaries, “the UK and Germany are the most competitive systems followed by Italy, which establishes higher salaries than France despite the complete absence of the variable remuneration,” says the report.

When adjusting by taxation, Italy has the lowest average salaries for the first two salary levels (€28,256 and €40,988, equivalent to US$30,400 and US$44,000 respectively) and is only just slightly ahead of France at full professor level (€57,178 as opposed to France at €56,335).

The UK (€49,168) comes slightly behind the two German states in the review – Bavaria (€52,689) and North Rhine-Westphalia (€50,006) – when comparing net salaries at the starting full-time lecturer or German junior professor level. There is no data for France at this level.

Net salary evens out at the senior lecturer/reader/associate professor level, or W2 professor level, between the UK (€69,385) and Germany (€70,333 and €69,328 for the two states respectively), with France falling considerably behind for net salary at the maître de conférences level (€44,522), but ahead of associate professors in Italy (€40,988) by just over €3,500.

Professors in the UK are way out in front in the salary league table at both the basic gross salary (€107,434) and net salary (€91,973) levels, according to the report, with W3 professors in the German states earning the next highest net salaries (€82,627 and €74,838), leaving France in the last place (€56,335), slightly behind the take-home (net) pay of Italian full professors (€57,178).

Age profile

The study also looked at the age profile of academic staff in the four countries using data for 2020 to compare the relative attractiveness of academic careers in the four countries. This showed the average age of associate professors in France to be 34, the UK 43, Germany 47 and Italy 52.

Germany reported the youngest average age of full professors at 52, followed by 54 in France, 55 in the UK and 58 in Italy.

In conclusion, the report said that in terms of academic career prospects, the four countries are extremely different. The UK and Germany are characterised by an expanding academic staff population, where the youngest (under 40) has increased by 3.5% and 7% respectively.

The French system is contracting by almost 7%, partly explained by the lure of “very well established private higher education systems involving business schools which offer far higher salaries but at the expense of demanding teaching loads” and a competing research system composed of research centres such as the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

The report said the data for Italy is “a cause of concern”, with the system shrinking by 3% and the youngest category having been reduced by 25%.

The Italian higher education system was “the main example of brain drain” with a high number of people leaving the country after completing their doctoral studies, said the report.

Recommendations for Italy

The report recommends that Italy should align basic academic salaries to the level of its main international competitors, which it suggests would mean a €2,000 salary increase for staff and cost to the government of €80 million per year.

Secondly, it calls for a variable component based on research performance as in the UK and Germany; and thirdly, it suggests a “geographical differentiation” as in Germany and France.

“Altogether these reforms would cost less than the German and French Excellence Initiatives, which cost respectively €400 million and €1,500 million per year,” said the report.

Martin Andler, president of the Initiative for Science in Europe and professor emeritus at Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin in France, told University World News: “This study is very interesting, but it should be pointed out that researchers do not choose an academic career because the pay is great, but because they love the science and the freedom to decide what to work on.

“There are however some conditions that have to be met, keeping in mind that academics come from the limited pool of very talented students, including an income which allows one to live decently, a clearly defined career path, and that they are able to decide their topics.

“These conditions are being met less and less, with moreover huge inequalities between countries. A study like this one gives much-needed insight into the extent of the problem.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. Follow @DelaCour_Comms on Twitter. He blogs at