Renaissance of ‘Italian Erasmus’ gets mixed reception

A domestic ‘Irasmus’ exchange scheme could help make teaching programmes more consistent and counter regional inequalities, but is a post-pandemic generation really interested?

February 12, 2023
Tourists pass-by a renaissance painting to illustrate Renaissance of ‘Italian Erasmus’ gets mixed reception
Source: Alamy

The idea of a domestic student exchange programme is again gaining currency in Italy, with supporters arguing that it could complement European Union schemes and help to combat brain drain.

The idea first rose to prominence in 2019, when the National Council of University Students asked ministers to set up an “Irasmus” scheme that would allow any student to spend up to a year at another Italian institution. The scheme could “meet the needs of students who for various reasons are excluded from the Erasmus programme”, argued the council’s president, who was then Luigi Leone Chiapparino, such as the student “who cannot or does not want to go too far”.

In 2023, as Italy gets stuck into spending about €20 billion (£17.9 billion) in EU Covid recovery funding on education and research, Irasmus is having a bit of a comeback. The Italian University Rectors’ Conference (CRUI) began setting up a committee to explore the idea last month.

Domestic exchanges are not without precedent. The Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies – Pisa is “like a small Erasmus, where students from other universities can come together and do a particularly challenging training experience in our labs for one week, living inside the school”, said its rector, Sabina Nuti.

The 2019 pitch for an Irasmus programme cited both access to first-class institutions and Italy’s cultural diversity. “Living in Calabria is very different from living in Milan, or in Venice or in Tuscany. We have quite different histories and cultures, so I think this can be a very good learning opportunity,” said Professor Nuti.

Aside from the student benefits, she said, an exchange programme could help to make teaching programmes more consistent nationally. “Each university tends to be an island. If you design an Erasmus system inside Italy, you force, in a way, universities to be more comparable and to do more benchmarking, and this is always very good for a public system,” she said.

Professor Nuti said the scheme could also temper a tendency of heading northwards to study, which is a problem because many southerners who complete their studies in the north never return. “Providing exchange can be a way to keep skills, competencies and opportunity in the south.”

More than 800km south of the Sant’Anna School, at the University of Calabria, the rector’s delegate for Erasmus, Alberto Di Renzo, saw the Irasmus idea as worth exploring. “It’s a somewhat interesting innovation, probably something good to experiment with. I personally agree with the will to try,” he said.

But Irasmus is not without its doubters. Gianpiero Barbuto, the head of Calabria’s international office, viewed it as a distraction. “Domestic Erasmus could be an idea – but after solving the real problems that are still facing the Erasmus programme,” he said, referring to Italy’s falling participation rates in the EU version. “I’m worried about this idea.”

There is also the question of how many potential exchange students would pass up the chance to immerse themselves in a fully foreign culture. Lisa Schivalocchi, the international lead for the national Union of University Students, said funding would be better spent on improving access to foreign exchange, or bringing all Italian programmes up to the same standard. “It’s always better to support the Erasmus programme, rather than an Italian one, because it gives you more,” she said. “We all speak Italian, we all have the same programmes at middle and high school, so we come from the same background.

“The Italian higher education system has many other problems that are more important.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Until opportunities are available in the south like Calabria ,people cannot stay. Unemployment in Calabria is 18%. To be able to use your Education and improve your status in life need to move especially the young. Most get tired living on their nonna's pensions.