Interview. Domenico De Masi supports the student protests, explaining that the Italian system of quotas is condemning Italy to a state of unskilled, jobless high school graduates.

Sociologist says Italian education is failing Italy

The sociologist Domenico De Masi, an expert in businesses and organizations, is promoting the protests of Italian young people for the right to study. He’s identified a few simple changes to revive not only education, but the whole country: “We have to remove the university quotas and build more classrooms; you just need a prefab structure, like those given to earthquake victims. The important thing is to have a laptop and a projector. Before any other reform, you have to break down ignorance. Italy is now blocked because since the ‘80s, we have not invested in schools and research.”

What happened? What prevented us from growing?

In the ‘80s, some areas of the world understood that their future would depend on knowledge and innovation; thus, they have begun to rely entirely on education. Today, 40 years later, we find that not only countries, but also often individual cities or regions have high wages, low crime, a high percentage of turnout in elections and quality of life, combined with strong doses of cultural activities. On the other side, right next to these realities, maybe an hour’s drive away, there are those that have not invested in education. And to this day, they suffer high crime rates, low attendance at the ballot box, inadequate salaries and few and poor cultural activities, amid many divorces.

There is a very interesting study by Enrico Moretti, an economist at Berkeley, who analyzed precisely the relationship between different districts of the United States. Boston, San Diego and Santa Barbara are much more advanced than other neighboring cities. And similarly, on another scale, while Seoul, Bangalore and San Francisco tripled their educational infrastructure, universities and research laboratories, we in Italy have virtually destroyed them.

Where do you find the greatest evidence of this gap?

Especially in the percentage of university graduates: In Italy, it is only 13 percent, the same as in several African countries, while in the more advanced areas of the world the ratio is 50 percent. Out of 100 young people of college age, 96 study in South Korea, 94 in the U.S., and only 36 in Italy. Out these 36, only 22 will complete a three-year college degree and only 16 will earn a five-year university degree.

How can that percentage be increased?

First, we should do as in Germany, where tuition fees were eliminated two years ago. Hillary Clinton has made this goal part of her program. On the opposite side, here in Italy fees go up, but in the end the problem is not even that: the real absurdity was setting up the closed quotas, a folly that does not attract the attention of you journalists. Two weeks ago, 300,000 young people presented entrance exams to compete for 98,000 seats. This means that over 200,000 Italian kids cannot study. In Naples, 3,000 people applied to compete for 1,000 seats in the scientific faculties. The Policlinico has created a medical undergraduate degree in English, but it offers only 31 seats, fought for by 300 candidates. The 270 young people who were not accepted are willing to study the medicine course in English if that’s what it takes to become a doctor, but they will have to enroll in a faculty that does not attract their interest, or go to swell the numbers of so-called “NEET,” young people who do not study nor work.

Why did Italy decide to set up the quotas?

According to the rector of the University of Naples, in this way, better services can be offered, although to fewer students. Generally speaking, they say there is a shortage of classrooms and professors. But we can build the classrooms in a week with prefab structures, like those given to earthquake victims. Just provide them with a laptop and a projector. Not even chairs are necessary: The kids could bring a pillow from home. I mean, there is a great need for education that is effectively ignored. And the professors? Assistant professors now need to wait until they are 50 or older to get tenure; in my time, I got tenured at 26. There are legions of professors who would be ready to work. Of course, if they were regularized and paid decently.

It is a problem of political choices, of where you put your resources.

But this €80 universal tax break, wouldn’t it better invested at the university? We would first cut down youth unemployment, which is now at 40 percent. In the U.S. is at 7 percent, though we believe this is because most kids are at university and the students are not counted among the unemployed. Then we would prepare a better Italy for the next 20 years. You can do all the reforms of the world, but when you go to apply it to a social group in which only 13 percent are university graduates, it’s useless. If our Ministers of Justice and of Health do not have a degree, if out of the last five mayors of Rome, only Marino and Raggio are college graduates, what message are we sending to the kids? That the university does not help to do a damn thing.

Young people cannot find work, so why are so few able to graduate? The last migration report shows 107,000 Italians emigrated in 2015: an upward trend, with a good chunk of them under 34. They come from the Northern regions and have a high level of education.

There’s a misconception that has already been overcome in America, Seoul or Bangalore: that a degree does not help to get a job. Or rather, it also serves to find work, but first and foremost it forms citizens, allowing them to understand the news. I always say: better an unemployed graduate than unemployed without a degree.

We must first lower the average school age, to make sure that students can graduate from the university at 21, 22, 23 years old. Japan has mandatory education until 21 years of age. In our country, times are getting longer and it is harder to complete studies because of high absenteeism and a system that does not work on several levels. Of course, then we have to raise the percentage of graduates. If you have a country stuck at 13 percent, you can build the best hospital in the world, but then you won’t find capable citizens not only to manage it but also to benefit from public services, starting from the patients. As I said, I would remove the university quotas, I would invest in foreign languages, innovation and research. With these disruptive numbers, either we decide to change in Italy, or we are condemned to the third world.