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Italy’s Education Minister Resigns: the “Elephant in the Room” Is Now Exposed

Lorenzo Fioramonti left office over lack of funds for the country’s education and research sector, constantly hit by severe budget cuts over the last decades.

Italy's outgoing Minister of Education, Lorenzo Fioramonti (Wikipedia)

Mr. Fioramonti’s move not only represents the last headache for the Italian government, hurriedly established by the Democratic Party and the populist Five Stars Movement at the end of the summer, it was also the umpteenth, dramatic wake-up call for the sector of public education, severely wounded by major spending cuts over the last few decades. The Minister had already announced in advance his intention to leave office unless the Government allocated at least 3 billion euros to the school sector. And because this target—that Mr. Fioramonti defined as the “waterline”—wasn’t met, that threat eventually became a reality.

The resignation of Italy’s Minister of Education, Lorenzo Fioramonti, came as no surprise on Christmas Day, as Italians were dealing with the sumptuous family dinner typical of the country’s tradition. As soon as Mr. Fioramonti’s official letter to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte started hitting the news, even before the Minister’s official confirmation, it became crystal-clear that the expected scenario was coming true.

 Then, on December 26–when Italians usually celebrate Saint Stephen’s Day by eating the leftovers of Christmas dinner—the Minister formalized his decision in a long Facebook post. “I had accepted my job with the only aim to reverse in a radical way the trend that for decades has put schools, university and research in a painful situation,” he pointed out. And after acknowledging the hard reality—the fact that, in its controversial budget bill, the government didn’t have enough courage to invest adequate resources in a sector that represents “the real future for all of us”—he realized it was time for him to resign.

 Mr. Fioramonti’s move not only represents the last headache for the Italian government, hurriedly established by the Democratic Party and the populist Five Stars Movement at the end of the summer, it was also the umpteenth, dramatic wake-up call for public education, severely wounded by major spending cuts over the last few decades. The Minister had already announced in advance his intention to leave office unless the Government allocated at least 3 billion euros to education. And because this target—that Mr. Fioramonti defined as the “waterline”—wasn’t met, that threat eventually became a reality.

 Indeed, it is undeniable that Italian schools and universities have been among the main victims of the economic crisis and the harsh austerity policies that have recently characterized the financial situation of the country, burdened by one of the biggest public debts in Europe and in the whole world. However, one would appropriately say that insufficient investment in education is not only the result of the hard economic situation but also represents the most evident consequence of poor and shortsighted political decisions. And even if every Government of the last few decades has been trying to update the complex field of Italian education, their reforms ended up being characterized by an extremely narrow-minded vision.

 One of the most controversial legislations  pertaining to education was enacted by Mariastella Gelmini, who served as the Minister of Education between 2008 and 2011, under the last Government of Silvio Berlusconi. Her reform encountered severe criticism from many quarters and was accused of dramatically cutting funds for schools, university and research. The figures speak for themselves. According to a study carried out by the European Commission, between 2008 and 2012 public school budget cuts amounted to 8.5 billion euros, 10.4% of the whole budget. Moreover, the university sector was hit by cuts worth 1.3 billion euros, 9.2% of the total budget. Within the space of four years, the Government wiped out 100,000 tenured positions in all grades. In the same period, the number of teachers dropped by 11.1%.

 Unfortunately, when it comes to public schools and university, this kind of policy wasn’t an exception in Italy’s recent history. In 2016, the Court of Audit validated how huge the impact of budget cuts perpetrated between 2008 and 2014 was. Not only did the number of teachers fall by 9%, but since 2013 the wages dropped by 0.8%. Over the course of six years, Italy’s spending on gross wages and salaries fell by 16%. And even the “Good School” reform carried out by Mr. Matteo Renzi’s Government, that apparently identified education as one of its top priorities, was met with criticism and recognized as detrimental and counterproductive by unions and teacher and student associations.

 It is no surprise that, according to OCSE, Italy invests only 3.6% of its GDP in education, far below the average expenditure of 5% of the GDP in the other OCSE nations. The report also highlights the challenges that the country will be facing in the next 10 years in terms of education: first and foremost, Italy risks losing 1 million students, and about half of the current teachers will be retiring.

 Over the years, job insecurity and precarious contracts have been daunting Italian teachers and university researchers, and many of them ended up swelling the ranks of the so-called “brain-drain.” This is a real social and financial emergency. According to recent figures, since 2017 the number of expats has increased by 1.2%, and 29,000 of them have a college degree. Since 2009, the country has lost about 182,000 graduates. This phenomenon, combined with the progressive erosion of Italy’s schools, university, and research sector, seems to represent the “elephant in the room” of the country’s politics.

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