Think we have it bad? As crisis looms in the university sector across Europe, Alanna O’Malley examines the plight of Italian students who are facing dramatic and devastating funding cuts.
Around Ireland, Students’ Unions are busy organising protests, constructing proposals and counter proposals and generally galvanising the student population into action over the issue of massively increased university registration fees. And in the true words of militant protestors, we are not alone.
Across Europe, reforms of the university sector, and in particular the ways in which it generates funding, are causing successive crises to those to whom it is supposed to provide a-third-level education. In particular, proposed changes to the structure of the university sector in Italy have lead to open revolt across the country.
Even in comparison to a small nation like Ireland, Italy has a particularly weak university sector with relatively little funding available, and ineffective government directives on structure, accessibility and administration.
Unlike the Irish system of ‘free fees’, students are obliged to pay the full costs of their university education, with grants available to relatively few. The net result of such a system has been to push third-level education out of reach of most of the population, with the outcome that Italy has one of the lowest percentages of extension of studies from second-level in Europe.
However, given the semi-autonomous position that universities commonly occupy within the state, the two entities have reluctantly co-existed without a major confrontation until now.
Though the sector has long been in need of drastic reform, the recent proposals from Berlusconi have been met with staunch opposition in third-level institutions across the country. University budgets have been slashed and financial support has been cut right across the sector, from reducing the amount of financial support available to students to axing pension schemes for university professors.
As Matteo Albanese, a second year History PhD student in the European University Institute (EUI), Florence, describes it: “The “so-called” reform will stop the turn-over in Italian universities. It means that for every five professors that will take a retirement pension, the universities can only pay for one new professor or researcher.”
The impact of this is devastating at both ends of the spectrum, making it even harder for graduates to find jobs and reducing the ability of universities to maintain standards as they recruit from a shrinking pool of available academic candidates.
It is commonly acknowledged among the students affected, that these proposals will have dire social consequences for Italy.
Cristiano Zanetti, also a PhD student in the EUI, pointed out that education should be a right of all citizens. “This so-called reform might create a social gap in the access to higher-level education between rich and non-wealthy citizens. Students now, will not be able to find a job in the academic world. Indeed, the turn-over is blocked.”
This potential social disparity reflects the worst possible result from what may be viewed as the commercialisation of education. “Essentially, they also want to change universities from public system to a private one just to be able to avoid a constitutional law and raise taxes,” argues Matteo Albanese. Though these reforms may appear dramatic against the rather modest proposals of the Irish government in comparison, the trend towards treating education as a commodity is clear.
The raising of university registration fees in Ireland will have exactly the same effect as in Italy- that of making third-level education a privilege, available to few rather than many.
It will also have a profound impact on the number and type of students attending college. By pushing third-level out of reach of many sectors of society, the Government would negate the arguments of university leaders about developing the full potential of each student and training the new generation of Irish people who will continue to lead this country forward.
In addition, by reducing the opportunities for as wide a range of people as possible to achieve a university education, the sector itself will feel the effects in terms of university research and academic output.
Justifications from university heads such as UCD President, Dr Hugh Brady, that universities are facing financial crisis and increased funding is needed to maintain competitiveness, while accurate, are, in themselves, unproductive.
Last year, the leaders of Irish universities soaked up-€84,000 from the Higher Education Authority, topping up their salaries to €270 000 apiece. Not only does this expose the blatant hypocrisy on the part of those employed at the top level of third-level education, it further means that the funding which comes from the Government is going in the wrong direction.
If competitiveness is to be truly maintained, it should also apply to the admissions levels in third-level institutions, where more opportunities should be made available. Not only is a redirection of existing resources required in order to alleviate the social consequences of these proposed reforms, education policy makers need to match the hike in fees with finance packages in order to avoid alienating the sector of the population to whom, the opportunity of gaining a third-level education has only become a tangible option in the last ten years.
Though the political ramifications for Berlusconi’s government are clear, there are also serious challenges to the political elite across Europe. As Cristiano Zanetti put it: “I do not know whether the Government’s drastic approach is the ‘best possible’ or not. In fact, I do not have much trust in Italian unions and opposition.”
Across Europe, reform of the university sector, and in particular the ways in which it generates funding, are causing successive crises to those to whom it is supposed to provide a third-level education
These reforms would appear to damage the credibility of the political system as a whole, and in Ireland, many will see it as a reigning in of the original promise to make education a right to all. The continuing trend towards commercialisation of education will also have negative consequences for the graduate, as, with a more limited educational pool, and less job opportunities available, university qualifications will effectively be reduced in meaning and influence in the job market.
In a cyclical effect, this will further reduce the apparent prestige of gaining a university education, which would have a serious impact on the perception of Europeans as an educated, motivated workforce.
Arguments, such as those put forward by Dr Brady and Trinity provost, Dr John Hegarty, about the responsibility society has for producing an educated workforce, no longer hold much weight. What is needed are solutions, not appeals.
The core argument that further, extensive and sustained investment is needed in the university sector is not an argument, but a statement of fact. However, joined-up thinking is required if, as a society we are to meet this challenge. What may prove productive would be an EU directive and blueprint for continent-wide reform of the university sector which would go beyond the proposals now which are merely aimed at fiscal prudence.
The burden of responsibility lies not with society to find new ways to fund third-level education, but with policy makers to formulate and execute pragmatic planning. Until the impotence of current European administrations is alleviated, it appears that our collective futures will hang in the balance.