Uncompetitive staff salaries: Italy could be left behind

Europe is known for being quite a differentiated continent, partly because of its geography and partly because of its history. Even in recent years, while decades of European Union policies have struggled to make the continent more homogeneous in terms of wealth and economic activities, a number of factors still push towards divergence rather than towards integration.

Higher education has often been identified as one of the main tools for the creation of an actual European Area, with the Erasmus programme – the European Community action scheme for the mobility of university students, established in 1987 – often identified as one of the most successful initiatives.

However, while student flows have actually increased a reciprocal exchange of people, knowledge and culture, flows of researchers and academic staff in general do not seem to follow the same path. In fact, uncompetitive salaries in Southern Europe are causing a brain drain and are making the southern countries less attractive to foreign researchers.

Comparing the attractiveness of systems

In this regard, our elaboration of the study commissioned by the Conference of Italian University Rectors (CRUI) was recently published in the “Research and Occasional Paper Series” of the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, comparing the attractiveness of European university systems in the four largest European economies, namely Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy.

The paper compares average remuneration for similar academic positions, remuneration structure, career path speed and perceived work quality.

It 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.

The estimate of net average remuneration is reported in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Comparisons of net average annual remuneration estimates and gaps (in percentage) across three academic levels in Italy, Germany, the UK and France

The large gap between Italian remuneration and that received by academic colleagues working in other European countries is immediately noticeable. Particularly severe is the comparison at the beginning of one’s career, where Italian researchers in ‘tenure track’ (RTD-Bs, ie, researchers who can become associate professors after a positive evaluation by internal bodies, provided they have national qualifications) are paid more than a third less than their French counterparts and half of what their German and English colleagues receive.

In addition to differences in levels of pay, the paper also notes the rigidity of the Italian remuneration system, which not only has no bargaining mechanism during the hiring process, but also does not provide for forms of adjustment due to market opportunities and-or territorial differences.

A UK university can, for example, negotiate better remuneration to convince a young engineer to opt for an academic career; a German university can offer remuneration that takes into account the different cost of living in the various German ‘Länder’; and a French university can adjust remuneration taking into account different family responsibilities; but none of these opportunities are possible for an Italian university.

Moreover, Italian universities are the only ones that do not explicitly provide a ‘mobility package’ capable of attracting young talent from other European countries.

The battle for talent

In an era where talent, especially that of those who work in an international context such as the academic job market, is increasingly identified as the main ‘scarce resource’ and where universities are seen as engines of development and the potential solution for the low growth rates of Western economies, it is clear that many of Italy’s main European competitors have equipped themselves with the tools needed to increase their attractiveness.

Italy, with all the demographic issues it is facing, needs to face this challenge around attractiveness in a conscious way.

The recent implementation of the Recovery Fund Facility was conceived of as a way to reduce labour market gaps and its objectives include investing in human resources.

The incentives for academic mobility approved last year and the contents of the recent decree approved by the government regarding rewards for academic staff are a step in the right direction because if it is still true that the choice of an academic career is first and foremost guided by passion and a desire for knowledge, it is also true that a researcher today knows he can follow this spark not only in Italy but in an increasingly global market.

It is therefore necessary to continue moving more quickly in this direction to avoid being overtaken by those in a much faster lane – with a long-lasting effect on Italy’s future.

Alice Civera is based in the department of engineering at the University of Bergamo, Italy; Dr Erik Lehmann is professor of management and organisation at the University of Augsburg, Germany; Michele Meoli is associate professor of finance at the department of management, information and production engineering at the University of Bergamo, Italy; and Stefano Paleari is professor of analysis of the finance system and public management at the University of Bergamo, Italy.