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The end of mass university

By Carlo Formenti

In Italy and elsewhere in the West universities are returning to their old role of supporting the generational renewal of the ruling classes.

The data released in recent days on the apocalypse facing Italian universities is impressive: 58,000 fewer students (down 17%) compared to ten years ago, while the number of lecturers has decreased at an even more rapid rate (down 22% in the last six years), which means that the average ratio between students and teachers (18.7%) continues to be the highest in Europe. Another – unenviable – European record is that of the lowest percentage of graduates in the age group between 30 and 34 years (19% compared with a European average 30%). The number of scholarships – already ridiculously small – is declining, along with student loans (as for those for research, it is better not to comment.)

Why do young people no longer believe that the degree represents a strategic resource to obtain a decent income in an increasingly mean labour market? The first point is that it matters not whether young people have lost faith in an university education, because even if they were convinced, many of them simply do not have enough money to cope with the rising costs of university education.

Also, since they too are informed and are able to understand the direction taken by our capitalist economy and society, they can see that the state invests ever less in education while the media talks ever more loudly about the benefits of different trades that do not require particularly high levels of education. In developed countries the era of ‘mass university’ has exhausted its function, as a growing share of high skilled jobs are migrating to developing countries (China alone plans to churn out 200 million graduates within a decade), following the same route that unskilled non-manual jobs [like shop cashiers or waiters] have taken in past decades.

The levelling down of income and living conditions and work globally continues at a rapid pace, and for many it is not worth the effort, or is simply not possible, to swim against the impetuous current which is inexorably dragging back Western universities (not only in Italy, where the phenomenon is most pronounced, but also in England and other countries) forcing them to return to the old role of supporting the generational renewal of the ruling classes.

There are those who still have the nerve to say that the degree is still an affordable investment for everyone. Some, for example, compare the performance of a degree with the average return on a portfolio of stocks and bonds, finding it favourable, so it is in any case worth “taking the risk.” The real reason for the decline in university enrollment, then, would be the risk averse culture among our young people.

Too bad that millions of American students, having taken the risk, are now having to struggle to cope with monstrous debts, which, having been “securitized”, threaten to create a collapse comparable to that caused by the infamous subprime debt, in the event that they are unable to shoulder that debt burden. But in Italy we have a solution for this: instead of taking out a loan, you could set up scholarships that will be paid back if and when the students, once out of university, have reached a sufficient level of income. And if they don’t attain this, they will not be obliged to return them, neutralizing the risks of insolvency.

Of course (of course) we cannot guarantee this opportunity to all, but only to the most capable and deserving … I do not know if this proposal will never be put into practice, but I’m willing to bet that if it were, the socio-economic profile will largely be that of the elite, with the exceptions to that rule bound by clear ideological and behavioural parameters (trouble-makers out, following the proven model pursued by Fiat chief Marchionne and the radical FIOM metalworkers union

One last question: are we so sure that the degree is still working as a royal road to a high income? The data arriving from the United States raises doubts: it is true that, on average, graduates continue to earn more money and have more employment opportunities than non-graduates, but it is equally true that the levels of employment and income of the first are decreasing at a rate that equals that of the latter.

Graduation, says economist Jared Bernstein, a former member of Obama’s staff, is not an insurance policy against global competition, the rapid spread of labour-saving technologies and mass unemployment.

Micromega February 3, 2013

Translation/Edit by Revolting Europe

Italy sees large fall in uni admissions from lower classes

The 17% fall in university student numbers over the past 10 years came at the almost exclusive expense of the least well off, according to La Repubblica which analysed the figures published by the Consiglio Universitario Nazionale. The newspaper came to this conclusion by looking at admissions, among other factors. Those entering university with a diploma from professional or technical institutes fell by 37% and 44% respectively, between 2003/4 to 2011/12, compared with an 8% increase of undergraduates who studied at a Liceo (Scientific or Classical Lyceé), where the wealthier families send their kids.

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Writer on Europe's Left, trade union and social movements @tomgilltweets or email [email protected]


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