Almost half of Italy's 55,000 university lecturers will retire over the next 15 years and no new generation is ready to take their place.
The National Committee for Evaluation of the University System warned in its annual report that Italy has Europe's oldest academics, while those with the rank of researcher, who in the natural order of things would take their place, are already largely in their 40s and 50s.
Some 58 per cent are over 50, compared with 51 per cent in France and 28 per cent in the UK. Only 1 per cent of lecturers is under 30 years old, compared with 2 per cent in France and 14 per cent in the UK.
According to the report, in ten to 15 years time, new lecturers will be needed, but they will have to be drawn from a generation of graduates that will lack experience.
The crisis stems from two causes. First, between 1970 and 1992 first-year student enrolment jumped from 194,000 to 374,000 and the student population grew from 720,000 to 1.6 million. So staff were hired in droves under temporary or part-time contracts, and it is mainly from this group that lecturers were subsequently drawn. But from the late 1980s, the number of students levelled off and so did the job opportunities.
Second, in Italian universities jobs are for life. It is virtually impossible to sack or forcibly transfer a lecturer, so there is no turnover. A university post is invariably kept as a sinecure even by those academics who dedicate most of their time and energy to a private profession or other activities. Consequently, over the past 20 years very few young academics have replaced older colleagues.
"Since the late 1970s very few people have come in from outside the system," Guido Fiegna, a technical director at Turin Polytechnic and a member of the committee, said. "To make matters worse, those who obtained tenure as lecturers before 1980 need only retire at 75, the rest at 65 but with an almost automatic extension to 70. As for the researchers, we have two 'average ages'. For those hired in the late 1970s it is 54, and for those hired later, 34. But there are far too few of them to replace the academics who will retire.
"The only solution is to immediately recruit a new generation of researchers, so they will have the time to gain the experience needed to become effective lecturers," Professor Fiegna said.
But with government cuts in higher education spending and the near-nonexistent turnover, this appears unlikely.
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