2 April 2015

Italy: A nation on the run


Ferdinando Giugliano, an Oxford graduate and journalist at the Financial Times, perfectly represents the ‘Italian emigrant’ today. The majority of Italians who left their country – 94,000 in 2013 alone and 300,000 in the past decade – are in fact male (56%), aged between 18 and 34 years old, and highly educated. “Italy is basically losing big chunks of its potential ruling class at all levels: politicians, technocrats, and entrepreneurs,” says Giugliano in an interview with King’s College Politics society publication Dialogue. But not only that: 20.2% of Italians abroad are academics – mainly in medicine, physics and neuroscience.

Is Italy not a successful example of one of the EU’s core projects, though? After all, one of the goals of the European Union is free movement of human capital. Data from the OECD show, however, that migration flows in and out of Italy are clearly imbalanced, with emigration outweighing immigration by far, and a stark flow of skilled labour out of the country. “This is not the healthy, free movement of people that the EU was set up to encourage. This is a nation on the run,” remarks journalist Beppe Servegnini.

The cause of the exodus is related to institutional inefficiency and corruption, which result in a lack of transparency in the recruitment process, a lack of meritocracy, and nepotism. Red tape discourages entrepreneurship, with high costs for scientific research and innovation. Decades of wasteful allocation of public resources have led to cuts on education and research funds.

Young researchers are frustrated by the limited advancement opportunities in the – particularly corrupt – academic environment, where personal connections are crucial. “Most young people feel they can’t build their own future in the country. [You either have] a very frustrating life for low pay with temporary contracts, or you go abroad; and that element… [is] almost compulsory,” concludes Giugliano.

Fixed-term contracts and laws pursuing “flexibility” – which have yet proved unsuccessful – have distorted the market for graduate employment while favouring mature workers.

On the immigration side, obsolete regulations have created ‘brain waste’. A substantial share of immigrants come from Eastern Europe and hold professional qualifications from their country; in Italy, however, these qualifications are not valid, which results in, for example, experienced surgeons working in elderly care. The uneven distribution of skills is also a problem – in fact, most immigrants entering Italy are unskilled workers, as opposed to the skilled labour force leaving the country.

There are obvious costs related to the loss of highly-skilled human capital, both in the short and long term. The social cost of educating and providing services to generations which will not contribute to the future growth of the country adds to the impairment of future competitiveness, whereas other countries benefit from gaining new taxpayers and highly qualified professionals.

Rapid and effective action is therefore needed. For former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, a combination of EU and domestic policies must revitalise Italian entrepreneurship and provide funds to research. Fiscal stimulus, more creative monetary policies and red tape reduction are also needed to appeal to foreign investment and allow for brain exchange.

Current Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has recently approved the “Jobs Act” that will allegedly reform the labour market and provide a safety net for precarious workers. The effectiveness of these new regulations, however, is yet to be demonstrated. Critics of the Jobs Act are sceptical of the incentives provided to employers, and fear that its effects will indeed damage young ‘precarious’ workers.

Reforms of bureaucracy and education are also in progress, but their efficiency depends on the stability and continuity of the current legislature. Policies tackling brain-drain, such as retention and networking policies for researchers, should also be discussed. Finally, there is a widespread feeling that academia should be internationalised and reformed so to create a “friendlier” environment for EU students; and that severe controls should be carried out to avoid favouritism and bribery in the recruitment process.

Beatrice Faleri is Associate Editor of Perspectives at King's College London .