Cuts put Italian schools under the microscope

Italian students and teachers are staging the largest protests in 15 years after a $10.2 billion funding cut.

Andrew Medichini/AP
Beastly cuts: "The reforms became law one day ago and we are already becoming beasts," reads a student protester's sign.

To the amusement of the tourists who visit Milan's Piazza del Duomo each day, the medieval square has been turned into an open-air classroom for the past three weeks. But this isn't an extended field trip; it's a protest.

Across Italy, tens of thousands of students and teachers have taken part in the largest student demonstrations in 15 years following a $10.2 billion cut in education spending and the elimination of 87,000 teaching positions, about 7 percent of the public education workforce.

More than cuts, Italians are increasingly dissatisfied with an education system that has made them one of the most poorly educated nations in western Europe and made it difficult for them to compete for jobs within their own country, let alone the European Union.

On Thursday, Mariastella Gelmini, Italy's education minister, presented a new plan that government officials hope may bring an end to the protest. According to the new draft the education reform bill, universities that manage funds poorly will face a 20 percent budget cut over the next four years and face a hiring freeze. Universities with a good financial record, on the other hand, will receive additional funding.

Additionally, universities will be required to have more transparent hiring policies.

Despite changes to the bill, teachers and students say they will continue to protest.

"Italian universities need more competitiveness," says Daniele Checchi, a political economy professor at La Statale University of Milan. While he supports performance-based funding for universities, he says that a 20-percent cut is excessive. "It would lead too many universities to bankruptcy," says Dr. Checchi.

Protesters also reject the budget cuts, saying that they will only result in the decline of public schools, forcing more students to attend private institutions. "Rather than a school reform, this seems like an agenda for privatization," says Nicoletta Eufemi, a student protester in Milan.

The student movement has not suggested an alternative reform plan.

Italy's protests come amid student demonstrations in France over a government plan to cut 25,000 of the nation's 1.1 million teachers over the next two years. The teachers' union has called for a national day-long strike on Nov. 20.

In both countries, many argue that the public school systems – both have some of the highest student-to-teacher ratios in the world – are not sustainable. Unlike France's system, though, Italy's lacks academic prestige.

"My generation is really upset about the whole education system, which is not providing us with many prospects for the future," says Enrico Gagliardi, a law student in Rome.

For decades, young Italian graduates have struggled with one of the highest unemployment rates of any group in Italy. Among the class of 2006, 17.6 percent are unemployed and only 39 percent hold stable jobs. This is compared with an overall unemployment rate of 6.5 percent in Italy.

Across the country, many Italians support the funding cuts as a punitive measure against what they view as a dysfunctional education system.

The final exam process, for example, requires students to wait along with hundreds of their classmates to take unscheduled oral exams. As a result, exams often overlap and students can wait all day to take one test. An average student can often take only one or two of their three or four final exams each semester.

Additionally, professors are inaccessible to students. The waiting period for a thesis adviser is usually several months and can stretch up to a year, causing many students to delay graduation.

Italy also has one of the highest dropout rates in the developed world. Only half of the students who enroll in college complete their degree, says Checchi.

Meanwhile, as more Europeans begin to move about the EU for work, an inefficient education system puts most Italian students years behind the competition.

On average, Italian students are 25 when they complete their bachelor's degree, and more than 60 percent then go directly into a two-year masters program.

"Often, a 27-year-old Italian engineering graduate [fresh out of college] has to compete with a British engineer five or six years his junior ... [who is] much more flexible," says Laura Mengoni, an official from Assolombarda, an organization of Italian entrepreneurs

Employers often complain that Italian graduates have excellent technical skills, but cannot apply these skills in a real world work environment, according to a report by Assolombarda.

"Students should simply get out of the classroom more often [and] do more workshops, internships," says Ms. Mengoni.

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