by Miriam Rossi

The Italian government, which has staked everything on ‘Made in Italy’ in terms of production, the authenticity of its citizens and even its language, tends to break its rule a little too often, especially in its public interventions, by using English words and expressions. As European Affairs Minister Raffaele Fitto recently declared, the “positive and constructive” work with the European Commission to reshape the Next Generation EU (i.e. in Italy, the notorious NRRP, the National Plan for Reconstruction and Resilience) is linked to repowerEU, the European plan to make Europe independent of Russian fossil fuels, well ahead of the 2030 agreement set up after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Everything is aimed at deregulation, competitiveness in global markets and innovation by “green” (an English term in public use) and digital. But everything seems bogged down in bureaucracy and untrained personnel. Municipalities, which are responsible for proposing and implementing projects, do not have specialists capable of first intercepting and then managing European funds. The various commissions responsible for monitoring and approving projects work too slowly compared to the spending timetable agreed with Brussels. Statements made in recent weeks reveal a general state of improvisation on the subject of funding, which seems to take little account of project specifications and final project objectives, focusing only on the need to spend. Among the investment chapters of the NRRP, a large part concerns precisely the increase of highly educated and qualified citizens, who can then also work in the public administration and companies in a general perspective of innovation in the country. 

The Ministry of Universities and Research (MUR) has therefore earmarked 18,770 doctoral scholarships for 2023-24, representing an investment of more than 726 million euros. The largest number of scholarships will be for so-called innovative doctorates with companies (13,292 in total). The aim is to respond to companies’ needs for highly qualified and specialised professionals, thus combining the Ministry’s investment with private investment in favour of a specialist able to work on (and improve) the company’s productive, organisational and market positioning structure. In a country populated by small and medium-sized family-owned businesses, investing in Research and Development is necessary. It remains to be seen whether the tax breaks offered by the government for the future recruitment of PhD students (whose scholarships are financed) will be of interest. For the time being, Italian universities are communicating this opportunity to the main players in the economic fabric of their territory, keeping their fingers crossed for the activation of all the PhD posts advertised. However, the immediate impact of the investment seems to be a new bottleneck rather than a stimulus for change, created by a new demand for staff capable of handling student paperwork and relations with private companies.

The question is: where is the strategic vision? That which the NRRP dictated to renew the country by making it greener and more digital, by reducing inequalities of opportunity between territories and those due to social conditions of birth, seems to have remained on paper. Beyond the commitment to guarantee more resources for the South, the space for co-design and co-programming was in fact minimal; the calls for resources went to those who were already in a position to absorb them, much to the detriment of the intention to reduce inequalities.

And where is the post-NRRP strategy? At the end of 2026, what will become of the public administrative personnel, researchers and highly qualified PhDs that the plan has enabled to be employed?  Are they all destined for the ‘brain drain’? In a country like Italy, where the proportion of 30-34 year olds with a university degree is 26.8%, compared with a European average of 41.6%, it is difficult for graduates to find a job that corresponds to their studies (in terms of qualifications, salary and stability), despite the positive trend in recent years. Not to mention the holders of the “classic” doctorate: by ministerial decree, it can only be used for academic research, and in all other cases it is shelved. Paradoxically, it allows one to sit on university examination boards and to hold academic teaching posts, but not to teach in primary and secondary schools; it is then rarely a qualification for public competitions (which are generally aimed at categories with lower qualifications). Will innovative doctorates resolve this bizarre situation? Does the government really intend to make good use of this investment in human capital?

It is doubtful: one should have the courage to create a real ‘merit’ strategy, where merit means a position at the top for those with the relevant skills. It should be a farewell to amoral familism! Goodbye to gut decisions and improvisation! Is the government making way for university graduates, PhDs and anyone else with honed and up-to-date skills to rebuild the country? Just look at the government team that has been asked to lead Italy in managing the NRRP funds. Their stated skills (and very few academic titles) alone herald a real failure.

Cover photo: University laboratory center © Desizned/