Reportage. As Italian elections draw near, Pietro Grasso of the left-wing Free and Equal Party suggested a reform to make university tuition free. The center-left, including former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, bashed the idea as a tax cut for the rich.

Free tuition proposal in Italy meets opposition, including from the Left

“Demagogic,” “wrongheaded,” even “Trumpian”—those were the words used to describe the proposal put forward on Sunday by Pietro Grasso of the Free and Equal Party about eliminating university tuition fees in Italy. The barrage of criticism is coming from the Democratic Party, involving the whole of its Renzian wing—a sign that the proposal has struck a nerve.

This is not a novel suggestion on the Left. It is also found in paragraph 7 of the electoral platform of Power to the People, as part of a highly progressive reform of general taxation. However, many voices from the Left have come out against Grasso’s proposal on social media. What would amount to a tax cut of €1.7 billion (or around €1 billion, if the measure were to be applied only to public universities) might benefit the “rich,” worsening the very inequalities that the measure is supposed to reduce.

On the other hand, one can argue that education is a universal human right and not merely a commodity. If it is a right, schools and universities should be free, paid for through general taxation, which would have to be much more equitable: Those who have a lot should pay a lot, and those who have little or nothing should pay little or nothing. Admittedly, in the times of the “flat tax” and the elimination of the IMU property tax on the first house owned, these notions might sound like science fiction.

Carlo Calenda, our talkative Minister of Development, has argued that Grasso’s proposal would be like the “Tax Bill” that Trump managed to push through Congress in the United States: “It is a benefit given to the richest part of the country,” he said, as well as being “badly thought out. Today, the students with low incomes are de facto already exempt from fees.”

At this point the controversy escalated, and Pierluigi Bersani felt compelled to defend the reasons behind Grasso’s statement: “I’d like to say to Minister Calenda that he should be a bit more modest: It is not a Trump-style proposal, but rather a German-style proposal.” In Germany (according to the decision of each Land, or region), Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Greece, “university education is free.”

Roberto Speranza (Free and Equal) pointed to another aspect of the problem: the abolition of tuition fees, perhaps including a refinancing of schools and universities from other sources than special taxes on education, would increase the number of students and graduates. “With 15.7 percent, compared to the E.U. average of 27.3 percent, Italy is 12 points below the European average with regard to the number of university graduates.”

“Calenda probably confused Trump with Corbyn,” said Elisa Simoni (Free and Equal), and “the necessary money will come from paring down the wasteful subsidies that are harmful for the environment. I hope Calenda is not in favor of this wastefulness.”

Renzi led the assault from the Democratic Party: “A blessing for the rich and for failing students who repeat their school years. A proposal written by Grasso but designed for Di Maio. Whoever is richer should pay more.” In turn, according to Padoan, the Minister of the Economy, “the university problem is larger than just tuition fees. We must improve the research facilities and offer support for the teachers.” Too bad that he only came to that conclusion at the end of the government’s term.

“A demagogic proposal, like Robin Hood in reverse,” said the economic mind behind Renzism, Tommaso Nannicini. “It would be a measure that steals from the poor.” The full-on assault continued with Manuela Ghizzoni (Democratic Party), who boasted that the “Student Act” (another one of the Anglicisms we have been cursed with in recent years) that was approved as part of the 2017 budget law established a “no tax area” for those who have an ISEE-certified household income of up to €13,000, and reduced fees for incomes of up to €30,000. The number of students currently exempt from taxes is 600,000, 15,000 more than last year. But this itself is a sign that truly free education would have a positive effect.

Further criticism also came from the Insieme (“Together”) alliance, which will run as allies of the Democratic Party in the March 4 elections. The Grasso proposal “is not equitable, nor properly contextualized. It proposes to cut taxes even for those who can afford them easily, and it would further reduce the already scant resources dedicated to education and research,” Giulio Santagata said.

Even the heads of universities weighed in against the proposal. “The priorities are investing in young people from low-income families to facilitate their access to the university and investing in young researchers,” said Gaetano Manfredi, Rector of the University of Naples Federico II and President of the CRUI (Conference of the Rectors of Italian Universities). “Then, if they have €10 billion to invest, the tuition fees could be eliminated as well.”

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