Human Capital in Italy

One of the many challenges Italy faces in the future is the ageing of its population but also how to educate talented people and crucially how to keep the bright Italians at home to work in the home country. That these things should be connected are perhaps not wholly unrealistic to claim and according to a recent article in the Economist this might not be far from the truth.

THE Bar Cristal, beneath an elevated section of Rome's inner ringway, caters mostly to travellers from the nearby bus and rail stations. But by 7.30am most days, it is packed with teachers, many of whom have come from as far away as Naples. They are part of Italy's army of 150,000 casual teachers, waiting for a call to teach in a short-staffed school. Darting between classrooms, they tack together take-home pay of €1,100 ($1,500) a month.


Since 2000 successive reports from the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment have shattered the belief that Italian schools are among Europe's best. The most recent put them near the bottom of the heap. In maths Italy's 15-year-olds were outperformed by their peers in all but three OECD countries. Almost a third were “unable to display the minimum level of mathematics proficiency needed to succeed in their professional and private life”. The share of young adults with essential qualifications was far below the OECD average.

No similarly exhaustive comparison has been done for tertiary education. But that so many young Italians study abroad, and so few young foreigners (2% of all foreign students) do in Italy, points to equally low standards at university level.

The teachers' unions like to stress Italy's relatively low public spending on education as a share of GDP. Scant investment may hold back the universities: spending on core tertiary education is 30% below the OECD average. But it is rising per student, as a low birth rate reduces the number of matriculations. As for schools, spending per primary- and secondary-school pupil is actually above the OECD average. The OECD suggests that its allocation is faulty, with too much cash going to a “large number of comparatively poorly paid teachers”, who work long hours in schools with low teacher-student ratios.

But there is another explanation. As in much of Italy, a logjam blocks young entrants. This explains the morning crowd at the Bar Cristal. It may lie behind the breakdown of discipline in classrooms. In 2001 90% of upper secondary teachers were over 40, compared with an OECD average of two-thirds. A mere 0.1% were under 30 (against 11% in all rich countries).

The incorporation of tens of thousands of youthful casual teachers will be a step in the right direction. But matters are worse in universities, where patronage, cronyism and secure tenure are the rule. A study by Corriere della Sera in January showed that a full 30% of top academics and 10% of lecturers were over 65. Only nine of the country's 18,651 senior academics are under 35, compared with 7% in America and fully 16% in Britain. In education, as in far too many walks of Italian life, it is grey power that rules.

This only highlights that Italy faces a challenge not only with an overall rapid process of ageing but increasingly also in terms of reforming its education system so that it might create that crucial lock-in factor which helps keep and nurture the very much scarce ressource of talented young human capital.