The national university council has recently made figures about student enrolment at Italian universities publicly available. In the last ten years it has fallen by about 20 per cent. This sudden drop is linked to the crisis and to the awareness of the pointlessness of working towards a degree which often penalises graduates rather than giving them an advantage in the world of work. While in the rest of Europe having a degree reduces the possibility of ending up in the limbo of unemployment, this is not the case in Italy.
The Italian labour market operates with a high proportion of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, many of which are also illegal. For many graduates, working in these sectors is their only employment option as the labour market is not able to absorb the majority of graduates. This is a long-standing problem going back at least to the 1970s but which has worsened since the crisis began in 2008. There are many reasons for this including, for example, nepotism and corruption.
Graduates find themselves in a no-win situation: they are unable to secure jobs which make the best use of their particular expertise but vacancies for unskilled or semi-skilled labour are effectively closed to them. Employers of unskilled factory workers, waiters, bar staff, supermarket staff and so do not regard people with degrees as good prospects. Graduates, so the stereotypical thinking goes, are supposed to be knowledgeable, more ambitious and less practical and so are not good candidates for these unskilled and semi-skilled (read over-exploited) jobs.
To add insult to injury, advice from official job-search bodies is often to remove degrees from one’s c.v. The resulting gap of several years raises questions, of course, to which official advice is often to lie by filling the gap with fictitious employers.
What’s more, university fees in the country are among the highest in Europe, with an average annual cost of US$1195. Added to these fees is the enormous extra cost for those who study away from their home town. It is not surprising, then, that it is less well-off students (penalised by the lack of financial support for studying) who choose not to apply to university. Funds for students’ financial support were already insufficient a few years ago. In 2009, though, 84% of students did have the right to such support whereas in 2011 only 75% had this right, despite the collapse in the overall number of students.
The consequence of all this is that while the number of students at university coming from ‘licei’ (high schools preparing students for university) increased by 8%, those from vocational schools decreased by an extraordinary 44%.
Inside the universities, degrees in the arts and humanities have been hit hardest by the drop in enrolments. Despite the fact that Italy has an immense artistic and cultural heritage, the country does not retain specialists in this field, and so the number of enrolments has collapsed. The cultural heritage degree course (concerned with the preservation of just such an artistic and cultural heritage) has seen a decline of 51%.
Italy already has the fewest graduates of all countries in western Europe and now, in total, there are 58,000 fewer students in the country’s universities. This is equivalent to the disappearance of an entire large university, such as the Statale di Milano. The number of university academic staff is also shrinking, down 22% from 2006 to 2012.
Higher education in Italy is contracting rapidly, just like the world of work.
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