Lifestyle & Belief

Elite Italian school beset by worries


Photo caption: Students demonstrate on Nov. 17, 2010 against 9 billion euros ($12.6 billion) in cuts to Italy's education budget. (Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

PISA, Italy — In October the Scuola Normale Superiore, Italy’s top public institution of higher education, celebrated its 200th birthday.

But the speech given on the occasion by Salvatore Settis, who has headed the school for 11 years, was anything but triumphant.

“It is maybe inappropriate, on a day of celebration, to point out problems and unresolved issues,” he said. “But I can't keep quiet on a point: While the financial crisis has hit all European countries with roughly the same force, some of them, such as France and Germany, have invested in research and education to react to it ... . This, unfortunately, is not Italy's case.”

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Italy invests too little in education: 4.5 percent of GDP versus an average among OECD countries of 5.7 percent. And the picture is getting worse: A reform of the university system devised by Education Minister Maria Stella Gelmini was put on hold after Silvio Berlusconi's economic czar, Giulio Tremonti, said there was not enough money this year to implement it. Italy is the only OECD country that has cut back on research funding in the last 10 years.

Even Normale has not been exempt, though it should manage to escape the worst of the cuts.

“We still don't know how much funding we'll have for 2011,” said physicist Fabio Beltram, who takes over from Settis as the school's director this month. “In fact, not even the ministry knows how much money it'll have.”

Founded by Napoleon in 1810 on the model of Paris' Ecole Normale Superieure, Italy’s Normale is not a full-fledged university. Its undergraduate students attend regular courses at Pisa University as well as Normale's special, research-oriented classes.

The school offers courses both in humanities and scientific subjects, and focuses on pure — rather than applied — research. Freshmen take high-level courses in mathematics, physics or ancient Greek, among other subjects, where they learn side-by-side with post-grad students and soon take an active role in their research. In this environment, science and the humanities often interact: Normale was one of the pioneers in applying digital technologies and computers to literary research and linguistics.

For Beltram, “as universities become more and more places where a specialized, work-oriented knowledge is passed on, we offer something different for very talented people, something which is becoming rarer and rarer: a method.”

Normale has an arduous admissions process: Aspiring students have to take a week-long series of written exams, followed by at least three interviews. If they make the cut, they receive free lodging, meals, a small stipend and a full refund on Pisa University tuition fees for five years — no matter their family’s income.

This allows the school to select just the best students: There are 60 places for undergraduates each year but, Beltram said, “this year out of 1,000 candidates we took just 55.”

For Settis, his predecessor, the Normale is a “happy paradox”: “an egalitarian elite school” that places a high value on merit. Normale scholars have received three Nobel prizes (among them nuclear pioneer Enrico Fermi) and one Fields Medal, which recognizes outstanding discoveries in mathematics. Out of the slightly-more-than-5,000 students who have attended the school, two have become Italian president and several have been prime minister.

“The Normale,” said Beltram, “doesn't come up in global university rankings because it is too small. But if you weigh results for the number of students, we are seventh in Europe. And we would be even higher if the criteria took into account our achievements in humanities.”

But for all its excellence, in a globalized world Normale faces a daunting challenge: “brain drain.”

As recently reported by Time magazine, bright Italian graduates often leave the country in pursuit of better professional opportunities. If they try to come back, they find a country where family ties and political affiliations often matter more than merit, and where young people have to settle for low wages and slow careers.

This is even truer for graduates of Normale, as Italy's universities are dominated by so-called “barons” — powerful, old professors who value personal and even family ties over research achievements. Italy’s universities already have a backlog of more than 9,000 “temporary” professors who often waited decades for a full-time job.

So they leave. “Everyone from our class is abroad, with maybe one or two exceptions,” said Francesco Veneziano, a Normale math graduate who is now a PhD student in Cambridge, United Kingdom.

“If you want to do research, you simply have no other option,” agreed his classmate Gabriele Dalla Torre, who now studies math in Switzerland.

According to Beltram, the brain drain would not be a problem if there was an influx of foreign students coming to Italy. “But our balance is awfully negative,” Beltram said. “Our economy isn't capable of profiting of such advanced research and talent.”

“One wonders what will become of the investment Italy made on us to fund our studies here,” said Maria Scermino, who spoke on behalf of recent graduates during the 200th anniversary ceremony. “As many of us will be forced to expatriate, it will probably be lost.”

Editor's note: Reporter Alessandro Speciale graduated from the Scuola Normale Superiore.