Italian academics have warned that the south of the country could be turned into a higher education “desert” because of an exodus of professor positions to richer northern regions.
In 2018, southern and central Italy lost the equivalent of 280 researchers, according to calculations from a group of reformist academics, Return on Academic Research (Roars).
Beniamino Cappelletti Montano, an associate professor of mathematics and computer science at the University of Cagliari, and a member of Roars, said that, since 2012, about 1,300 professor positions had moved from south to north.
Since then, Italy’s funding system has meant that, when an academic retires, half the money for their position stays with their institution but the other half is redistributed across other Italian universities according to a range of criteria.
These include the financial situation of the university and how much it raises from student fees. Critics argue that this disadvantages institutions in the much poorer south.
“The consequence of these politics is a disaster not only for southern Italian universities but their regions,” said Dr Montano. “If you have fewer professors, you are forced to close some courses and then to lose students, and then to lose funding...and then to lose professors...in a vicious circle which will have as a final consequence the desertification of higher education in the poorer part of Italy.”
Luigi Nicolais, former president of Italy’s National Research Council, added that the redistribution formula also rewards greater income from industry, which is inevitably easier to win in wealthier areas.
Giuseppe De Nicolao, professor of control and systems engineering at the University of Pavia and a member of Roars, said that the shift of researchers from south to north was “just a piece of the overall puzzle” in a broader debate in Italy over whether wealthy northern areas should have more control over their taxes.
The debate took on new life in 2017 when Lombardy and Veneto – two wealthy northern provinces – voted for more autonomy, reflecting long-standing concerns that such regions financially prop up the south.
A petition against this “succession of the rich” from the rest of Italy has been launched by Gianfranco Viesti, professor of economics at the University of Bari, capital of southeastern coastal region Apulia. He also warned in a 2016 book that a “new gap” had emerged between universities in the north and south of the country. In 2017, Lombardy, whose capital is Milan, had a gross domestic product per capita of €38,212 (£34,320) – close to twice that of Apulia, where average income was just €17,994.
A spokeswoman for Italy’s Ministry of Education, Universities and Research pointed out that northern universities had fewer professors per student compared with institutions in the south.
The rules had not been set to take positions from the south and move them north, she argued, and some southern universities had done well from the formula in 2018. The system gives “more full professor budget points to those universities that have fewer staff and more funds available”.