Reforms to Boost Student Mobility Are Not Helping the Lower Social Class in Italy
Student mobility is an important yet neglected component of social mobility: In principle, it could foster social mobility, but its role in preserving or dismantling social inequalities is still largely under-investigated in Europe. Besides the fact that higher education reforms at the European Union (EU) and national levels have incentivised young people to study abroad from their home region, its impact on social mobility is yet to be understood.
Seeking to answer this question for the Italian case, Roberto Impicciatore and Francesca Tosi (Bologna University) looked at data from the Survey on Educational and Professional Paths of Upper Secondary School Graduates from the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT). Their study was recently published in the prestigious journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility.
The Italian educational system would, theoretically, favour student mobility from all backgrounds: Tertiary education is provided through a system of state-funded public universities. Any student who has successfully obtained a high school diploma is entitled to enter almost all fields of study at the tertiary level upon payment of tuition fees, calculated according to students’ economic background. Indeed, student mobility of young people clearly increased after 2001, together with a rise in enrolments recorded in the same period, but mostly for those with the strongest family backgrounds. The study by Impicciatore and Tosi shows that while upper-class students continue to acquire degrees in universities perceived to be of a higher quality and have access to more rewarding jobs in the North, southern lower-class students still enrol at local universities in order to avoid mobility costs.
Regarding the implications of this selected student relocation in terms of possible intergenerational social mobility, their findings suggest that those who need to migrate the most (that is, those at the bottom of social hierarchies) are also those who tend to migrate the least. Inequalities in chances for students who want to move to a university in Italy are big and are increasing. This implies that the highest quality universities are increasingly more accessible to the well-off.
From a policy perspective, this study suggests that expanding higher education supply is not an effective means to reduce class selection in student mobility and to tackle persistent educational inequalities among social strata and country areas. The authors suggest that a possible way to mitigate the selection process during the transition from upper secondary to tertiary education could be to focus on the quality – rather than the quantity – of southern and peripheral higher education institutions. Investing in the improvement of the overall performance of southern universities and strengthening their capacities to deliver quality teaching and research could be an important step towards rebalancing economic opportunities for all, especially for lower-class students of the South.