The dinosaur in the closet of European tertiary education

October 26, 2016




The economy of Italy has been on a lifeline for more than 20 years, since 1991 growth has averaged around 0.635% (compounded annually) against the EU average of 1.65%. Political crisis, corruption and an inflexible labor market have all been accounted for such a failure to deliver on the economic front. But maybe it is time to look at more fundamental factors, something that, at least in Italy, is not talked of but that is increasingly worrisome.



Only a bit more than 19% of the population in Italy has what counts as a tertiary degree (Bachelor’s or equivalent) against an average of 35% of the EU. The only countries that have such abysmal rates are Romania and Slovakia, but both of them show a much lower GDP per capita than Italy.


The number of people with a degree ranging from 25 to 34 years old were 7.1% in 1993 and rose to 22.3% in 2012. It is important to notice, however, that in 1997, with the Berlinguer reform, the Italian education system basically introduced the equivalent of the Bachelor degree with a coursework spanning three years. Due to this redesign of the university system, it is hard to tell if there was an effective 3-fold increment.
Dropouts in the old system are not accounted for and it is not possible to count the number of Bachelor's Degree holders when Bachelors did not exist.


One thing is sure: the last thing a country with such high rates unemployment (12.4% overall) and abysmal economic growth can afford is an unskilled workforce in an increasingly competitive scenario.
What worked 40 years ago during the miraculous boom of the 60s in Italy cannot work now, as the economic situation is completely different. The solutions to this current crisis are not more low-skilled jobs and factory work, nowadays those are drivers of developing economies, not advanced ones.
Most of what constituted the golden era of the Italian industry are jobs that are never coming back. One of the worst aspects is that, while other nations are moving to services, Italy is in this strange limbo between past and present and it seems like it does not want to let the secondary sector go.
The share of GDP Italy spends on education is also well below the European average: the following map shows the expenditure as percentage of GDP for most European countries ( data from World Bank). 


Not only just a fraction of Italians has completed tertiary education, but even dropout rates go through the roof;  40% of students who entered Italian universities will never see the end of their programs and 17% fail even in completing secondary education.
It could be argued that the high dropout rates are a proxy of the quality of education and only the better ones are good enough to get a degree. This translates in a high number of graduates that would tend to expatriate and that is kind of the case for IT, engineers and researchers.
The ones with high sought-after skills, in fact, are the main character of “Fuga dei cervelli”, which can be translated as “Brain Drain”, a phenomenon by which more and more Italian talented graduates decide to expatriate for better opportunities abroad. As mentioned above, it could simply indicate that the Italian university system is just harder than its European counterparts, however this does not explain the rampant unemployment. 

There is another side of the coin: only excellencies are leaving, because they are the only ones that can.
Maybe there are language barriers for the rest, or there is simply no demand for the average Italian graduate. Both are equally likely and in either case the responsibility falls on Italian schools that fail to prepare their students for the job market.

It seems just natural for youngsters with such dire work prospects to question the validity and usefulness of tertiary education. With youth unemployment rate dangerously drifting towards 40%, even degree holders taken as a whole also do not seem to have any advantage, giving even less incentive to matriculate at a university. Ironically this questioning and doubts about the value of higher education might be what is holding growth back.
In the 21st century the Italian workforce is not better qualified than at the end of the 20th century and the national GDP also did not change substantially. It is difficult not to imagine a link between the two.

Now this article does not want to give a statistical proof of correlation between growth and educational level, but looking at the data it is possible to hint at a vicious circle between the low marginal gain on education in Italy and the problems that permeate its social and economic tissues.

While the rest of the world is moving forward, Italy is like a dinosaur trying to keep up with warm blooded mammals. The latter are not only quicker, but also much more flexible and adaptable to the new environment.

There is a need to reform fast the entire educational system. College education is not only a way to get employed, but it is nowadays a fundamental part for the development of the whole population and, consequently, of the whole country.
Maybe it is time for Italy to move the clock that has been stuck for the past 20 years.
If it does not want other nations to quietly slip ahead in the race, maybe it is time to evolve.


Please reload

Recent Posts
Please reload

Please reload

Looking for older articles?