Where have all the Italians gone?

What Italy's 'brain drain' says about the state of the country as a whole.

According to nearly all analyses, Italy is in trouble. Not just because this nation of rich cultural history -- of Dante, Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci -- has been reduced to twee stereotypes of pizza-making, spaghetti-eating, money-laundering mamma's boys. But because the corrupt and nepotistic nature of the some of the country's bureaucracy -- not to mention the almost farcical antics of its ruling elite -- have left it in an economic, social and political mess.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the nation's universities, where students and researchers alike wallow for years in obscurity, many taking the first opportunity available to leave and seek their fortune elsewhere.

According to some estimates, at least 20 per cent of all Italian researchers are currently living and working abroad. (Full disclosure: my father is one such exiled Italian academic, who has spent the past ten years complaining vehemently about the miserable weather in Britain and hankering after fresh gelato and home-made pasta. Indeed, he so missed the company of his fellow country-men that in 2008 he became one of the founding members of the Virtual Italian Academy (VIA), an online community of exiled Italian scientists that seeks to unite such kindred spirits in the dual pursuits of science and nationalistic nostalgia).

That people are leaving the country is not in itself wholly surprising. The nature of scientific research often involves international collaborations, and it is not unusual for those working in the sciences to transfer overseas to pursue further research opportunities. The real problem is that this outflow of academics from the country is not being compensated by an influx of foreign researchers -- according to VIA, only 2 per cent of scientists currently working in Italy come from abroad.

The net effect of this, then, is that Italy is experiencing a 'brain drain', where the flow of talent seems inexorably fixed in one direction: out of the country.

True, other countries in Europe (and indeed in the developing world) also suffer from the same problem, but Italy is the only Western European country where the number of intellectuals leaving the country so grossly outweighs those coming in. The fact that a wealthy, developed nation with such a rich cultural history is being slowly leeched of its talent is a highly troubling development.

Because the sad truth of the matter is that the system that has failed its own people also fails to attract new talent to its shores. High levels of corruption, low spending on academic research and a convoluted and frustrating bureaucratic system mean that foreign brains end up looking elsewhere.

So, what can be done? Unfortunately, unless something gives in the system it is unlikely that Italy's brain drain can be reversed any time soon. The country needs to make itself attractive to outsiders (and this applies all over the spectrum, not just in academic fields) before it can start creating a future for itself. Whether it will be able to do this, however, is another question.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.