In the July 14-15 Italian edition article of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Luca M. Possati examines the crisis of the Italian university system. Where most secular intellectuals blame the Church for its suppression of “academic freedom,” it turns out the real culprit is the vast education and research bureaucracy propagated by the national government.
Possati notes how the different governments have tried to reform public administration in different sectors, but have failed miserably, only creating more public debt, inefficiency, and confusion. The recent university reform, known as the “Moratti reform,” began in the year 2000 and set out to improve Italy’s academic system with the two-cycle degree system of three years each also known as “3+2″. Alas, it only resulted in more obstacles for students and professors, especially those involved in post-graduate and scientific research.
While the article addresses the cause of the problem, it does not seem to offer any practical solutions, besides ending with a meek call for a more flexible labor market in the university. This is a shame, because Possati could have sought guidance from Catholic social teaching, especially the principle of subsidiarity, which would allow for greater decentralization, if not privatization, of the education system. Simply making it easier for the bureaucracy to grow will not solve anything; cutting the bureaucracy and reducing its incentives to grow get closer to the core issue.
To recognize just how big a mess the system is in, take as an example the University La Sapienza in Rome. With 147,000 students, the university is the largest in Europe and one of the oldest, founded by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303 (it’s no longer run by the Church but by the State, as readers will recall). It is also known for its high drop-out rates and endless wait lists and lines. A student can spend months trying to collect all the forms necessary to enroll. Others have to get up at 6am to get a seat for a 10am lesson. Some medical students even get their degrees without sitting through one anatomy lessons because they prefer to study at home.
As a result, the percentage of the Italian population with a university degree is quite low, just 11% of 25-44 year-olds have one. This kind of inefficiency also affects those with higher degrees, frustrating young researchers and forcing them to go abroad to continue their projects. This exodus obviously depresses Italian productivity and results in “brain drain” among the most talented and educated.
It should be no surprise that Catholic and private universities such as LUMSA and LUISS are better off because they govern themselves as small firms with a concern for the quality of their services. These universities have much lower drop-out rates and much more satisfied, education students as a result.
Greater decentralization and privatization of the Italian education system would disproportionately affect the very administrators who have created all the problems in the first place. It may not be a panacea, but it will be a first step in allowing teachers to teach, researchers to research, and students to learn without the ridiculous interference of power-hungry government officials.