[en] The Education Warfare (1994-2010)

Historical lines 1994-2011

Early 1990s

Francesco D’Onofrio (the Ministry of Education in the first Berlusconi I Cabinet in 1994), was the first to propose a business-oriented idea of school. In particular, he proposed to establish direct funding to private schools – which was at odds with the Italian Constitution, stating that Private Schools should not cause any financial burden to the State (Item 33). His ideas were welcomed by general criticism, partially because of their actual merit, partially due to his public image, a melange of bigotry and conservatism. He was only successful in abolishing the so-called “Esami di Riparazione” (an admission exam to the following year for students with unsatisfactory results in one or more subjects), which were replaced by mandatory courses and take-home exams.

The late 1990s and the centre-left coalition governments

A quantic leap in the implementation of Bologna Process was achieved with the left-wing coalition governments that run the country from 1996 to 2001. In 2000, the Ministry of University Ortensio Zecchino, was effective in implementing the Bachelor-Master-Doctorate system, consistently with the European Framework of Lisbon. Universities were ruled for the first time as autonomous boards, offering their own educational contents in a somehow competitive way. Italy implemented the new system with a very fast track, as Universities started offering reformed courses already in 2001. As a result of increased competition and of the fast track followed by the government, in a few years the course offering proliferated to a monstrous figure. The adoption of ECTS was also responsible for the shrinking of academic requirements and for the excessive disciplinary fragmentation of the newly instituted majors.
While university changed its face, Primary and Secondary school also underwent major transformations, albeit at a slower pace. The reform of Primary and Secondary school curricula never took place as it was planned by the Ministry of Public Education Luigi Berlinguer (formerly Dean of the University of Siena). In particular, the proposed abolition of Middle School (11-13 yrs) and the consequent restructuring of Primary and Secondary education in two cycles (a primary one, covering from 6 to 12 years of age, and a secondary one, covering from 13 to 18 years of age) never went into effect. However, many other changes did. Like Universities, schools also became autonomous bodies, while the introduction of “extra-curricular” activities fostered competition among institutes. Private schools were integrated in the local boards of education within the legal frame of horizontal subsidiarity (i.e., partnership between public and private sectors), while indirect subsidizing took place on regional basis (both in regions ruled by Centre-left and by Right-wing coalitions). During the mandate of Mr. Berlinguer, the minimum requirement of formal education was extended from 8 to 10 classes (that is, from 14 to 16 years of age). Later, this requirement was lowered again by right-wing Ministry Moratti. Mandatory attendance is a central feature of a traditional, class-oriented school, in which children were asked to choose a career at as early age as 13.

The Berlusconi II cabinet
In 2002, shortly after another right-wing government went in power, the new Ministry of Education Letizia Moratti (member of a family of tycoons, and later serving as the Mayor of Milan) suppressed the reforms from the previous government and started working on a different hypothesis. The main elements of her new Reform were traditionalism, conservatism and a hierarchical view of the relationship between students and teachers. Other pillars were the partnership between private and public sectors, together with an increasing concern for marketability of the acquired skills. Such a philosophy was consistent with the electoral slogan of Berlusconi campaign, referring to 3 “I”s to be taught in school, Internet, Inglese, Impresa (Internet, English, Business). In order to cope with the austerity policies, Ms. Moratti eliminated the presence of external examiners in High School Graduation Exam, while also inaugurating the practice of firing teachers with one-year positions during winter and summer breaks, and hiring them back in other schools at the re-opening of schools. This practice generates stress and insecurity for teacher, while also destroying the continuity of the learning experience.

Under the mandate of Giuseppe Fioroni and Fabio Mussi, respectively Ministries of School and of University under the left-wing government in power from 2006 to 2008, no significant changes were put in place. Fioroni ruled on school-related issues (in particular, the reinstatement of Late Admission Exams for Students with unsatisfactory grades), while Mussi proposed a rationalization of the ECTS system (a reduction of the number of courses offered during each term, leading to a less stressful and fragmentary pace, but also to further shrinking in the programs). Law NR, signed by Moratti, was withdrawn before its expected application.

Berlusconi III and IV cabinets
36-year old Mariastella Gelmini, the current Ministry of Education was nominated in 2008. Her first public declarations were marked by explicit conservatism. In 2008, her plea for the reinstatement of school uniforms provoked disconcert and attracted criticisms from teachers, scholars and even foreign intellectuals such as Daniel Pennac.
The most problematic aspects, however, lie in Law nr. 133/2008 (approved by Parliament early in 2009), which entail dreadful consequences such as the transformation of Public University in privately-run Consortia, and the unlimited recur to student’s fees to fund the shaking budgets of Universities.
While the draconian budget law approved in 2008 (provoked a shrink in the offer of Full-Time option in Elementary school (a social conquest from the 70s, allowing many children of working women to succeed), an ideological-based measure re-introduced, among other things, the “prevailing teacher” in the curricula of Elementary School. This was dubbed as a step backwards in pedagogy.

Main trends 1991-2011

Insufficient funding
Government of different colours have ruled during the past 15 years; however, public school remained unfunded. The percentage of GDP invested in school and university varied from 5,38% to 4,5% from 1991 to 2011 (Source: Ministry of Education), making of Italy one the less investing nations among all OECD countries. However, the proponents of austerity insists that public spending on school and university is out of control and that it should be reduced.
Lack of funding means overcrowded classrooms and unsafe facilities. On October 31 2002, the elementary school in San Giuliano di Puglia collapsed after a light earthquake that did not provoke severe damages to other buildings. 27 children and a schoolteacher lost their lives to the crash. The collapse was caused by the lack of security, due to an illicit expansion of the building and to overall negligence in the renovation, including fraudulent use of second-choice materials. In 2008, Vito Scafidi, a 17 year-old student was killed in the crash of the ceiling in his school, in Rivoli, near Turin.

Creeping privatization
Privatization has been an ongoing feature of all the attempted or realized reforms in the past 15 years, since the mandate of Francesco D’Onofrio (1994) to the current one of Maria Stella Gelmini. Despite the total lack of a tradition of quality private education, strong emphasis has been put so far on the alleged “excellency” of the private, considered as more efficient and ideologically reliable. Private schools have been directly funded and indirectly subsidized, through National and Regional laws.
Consistently with their ideological orientation, Berlusconi re-named the Ministry of Public Education as “Ministry of Education, University and Research” in 2001. The label ‘public’ was shortly reintroduced in 2006 after the electoral defeat of right-wing coalitions, and eliminated again in 2008.
It is also worth noting that since 2002, due to the constitutional reform approved by the Parliament and confirmed by popular vote (Riforma del Titolo V della Costituzione), vocational training is no longer exclusively run by the State but also by Regional Parliaments. This is especially important as vocational centres and professional training are one of the leading sectors for private investment, and the lack of a common frame is a key of its potential marketability.
Creeping privatization, finally, is now a concrete threat to Universities, since Decree 133 Gelmini not only allows, but also encourages direct participation of Corporations to Universities’ Boards of Administration. In this event, private investors would have a unheard of decisional power in the course offering, academic policies, and hiring decisions.

Brain drain and brain gain

According to the official records of Italians living outside of Italy (AIRE) in the past 10 years, Italy lost more than 300,000 people to migration to foreign countries (both within and outside the European Union). Although the public debate tends to insist on the “academic” component in the “brain drain”, the phenomenon is of course much wider. The thousands of people that leave Italy every year are not only PhD students or researchers that grow tired of endless academic precariat, corruption, or nepotism; they are engineers, creative artists, IT-workers: in short, young professionals in every sector. However, this new migratory wave is profoundly intertwined with the shortfalls of Italian system and with the overall quality of the national public education.
Insofar as Italy is concerned, the mobility advocated by the Bologna process has been so far a one-way-only process. This means that the Italian educational system, which is still based on taxation revenues, invests resources to train people who will never be able to employ their skills in their own country.
If Italy is not successful in retaining its own youth, or more correctly, in attracting back its own “circulating brains”, it is even less capable of attracting international students. In 2009, the percentage of non-domestic students was around 3,1%, as opposed to other countries such as UK (17%) and to the UE average of 10% (Source: Migrantes); furthermore, this percentage also accounts for the many children of international migrants who have been in the Italian educational system, although they still do not qualify as domestic students.
Even on that ground, the inclusion of migrants has a long way to go.
In 2008, the Northern League proposed a bill instituting separate classes for non-native Italian speakers, due to the fear that they would “slow” down the learning of their Italian classmates. However, early in 2010, experts of the same right-wing coalition proposed to put caps to number of foreign students per school. The exceeding foreign students would have to enrol in other schools, often in different neighbourhoods and far from their homes. The proposed cap also included children born in Italy to non-Italian parents. Meanwhile, the budget for social inclusion, as well as that of disability tutoring, keeps shrinking.

International prestige
Italy was once renowned for its public University, providing solid disciplinary foundations in 4-years courses (the old “Laurea”, equivalent to a 4-year BA), and whose dissertations were comparable, in length and depth, to many PhD theses that are being compiled nowadays. However, this is no more than a past reminiscence, in the current era of ECTS and one-year private Master’s. While the traditional public system (which used to be truly a prerogative of a privileged minority) opened its doors to many who were the first in their family to receive a University Degree, it did not also extend its distinctive, solid preparation, but only a standardized and lightened version of it.
The public image of the Ministry of Education has also been the source of concern in the past 10 years, due to several hoaxes and gaffes. In 2001 the Ministry of Education, School and Research Letizia Moratti became “Joy Moratti” as a result of clumsy automatic translations; later on, in 2003, a zealous officer inserted a quotation by Prime minister Berlusconi in the national dossier for the High School Graduation Exam. On September 25, 2011, commenting the results of the OPERA experiment run at CERN in Génève, the Ministry released a press declaration referring to an actual tunnel between Génève and the Mountain of Gran Sasso (an impossible infrastructure that would span over more than 700 km). This press-release created general hilarity, until spokesperson for the Ministry, Massimo Zennaro, resigned on September 28, 2011.

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