Italian left urges abolition of university fees

ROME - Pietro Grasso, the former anti-mafia magistrate and founder of the left-wing party Liberi e Uguali (LeU), has pledged to scrap university fees in Italy, triggering a heated debate over who would benefit from the policy.

 Grasso hopes to capitalise on the growing discontent amongst Italy's youth with traditional parties. In particular, the pledge to make university education free is an effort to steal a march on the Five Star Movement (M5S), with voters between 25 and 34 considered the most likely to vote for the anti-establishment party.    

 It comes amidst a host of difficulties for young people in the country. The Italian National Institute for Statistics (ISTAT) found that 3.2 million 15- to 34-years-olds were not in education, training or employment in 2016. Even those with university degrees find it difficult to find work afterwards. Four in 10 workers between 15 and 34 are still finding work through the recommendation of friends, family and connections.

 Italy's universities are the third most expensive in Europe, behind the UK and the Netherlands, with fees having risen by 60 percent in the last decade according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).

 In 2016, Italy had 1.7 million students enrolled across all courses. At present, it costs between €1,500 and €2,000 a year to study, with only around 10 percent of students receiving grants, a rate that compares poorly with the likes of Germany (25 percent), Spain (30 percent) and France (40 percent).

 Grasso estimated that scrapping the fees would cost €1.6 billion, "a tenth of the €16 billion that our country wastes, for example, on tax relief and indirect sabolishing the fees "means really believing in the young, not in words but with concrete facts."

 But the Minister for Economic Development, Carlo Calenda, described the measure as "Trumpian," providing "fundamental support to the richer parts of the country."

 However, there remain questions over who the true winners and losers might be were the fees to be abolished. A report by Il Fatto Quotidiano vigorously contested Calenda's claims. It pointed to the fact that, under the recent Student Act, only families with an ISEE (an indicator of economic conditions within a family) of less than €13,000 were fully exempt. Families earning more than €30,000 per year were liable for the full fees. "Those paying", therefore, "are not necessary 'children of the rich'."

 Grasso appears to have taken inspiration from the way the UK Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, mobilised the youth vote in 2017. Indeed, his slogan, "for the many, not the few," is a direct borrowing from Corbyn. But his proposal also recalls the Liberal Democrat promise at the 2010 UK General Election to abolish university fees, a pledge they later reneged on.

 Regardless of whether LeU keep their promise after March 4, it remains unlikely that the youth vote will deal a decisive blow for Grasso in this campaign. Under-35s make up only 22 percent of the total electorate, just over half the number of voters over-55.

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Image: La Repubblica.