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Italy: The Land of the Surname and It’s Declining Institutions

Italian Surnames

I am as blind as a bat. I wear glasses and have always done so ever since that fateful day at school where the nurse told my parents I needed glasses (I was five years old. I sat on the green sofa in the living room and cried…it was a very difficult time for me). As far as I was concerned, this just added to list of things that would get broken when I was pushed around by two of the biggest, meanest kids in school…my brother and sister.

As a freckly, bob-haired-box-fringed, bespectacled child, it would have proved challenging for my brother and sister not to pick on me. One of them would sit on my legs while the other, with their knees on my arms, would dangle a trail of spit over my face. There I squirmed, locked in a crucifix I could not escape from. Forgive them father, they know not what they do…

It is strange to think that now, my sister is practically my closest friend and my brother…well, he still can’t resist pushing me into a wall as he walks by, but it’s all out of love.

Living abroad has brought me a lot closer to my brother and sister. How could it not? Not only do I provide a free translation service for Suarez’s tweets about transfers, but I also provide free accommodation, a guided tour and a wide repertoire of foreign swear words. /but when I was living in Italy, I noticed something. Family is everywhere. The mafia, independent businesses, even the university seemed to revolve around family. Even the building I lived in housed the entire extended family of my landlady, and they sensed the presence of an unknown a mile-off.

In 2010, the Independent’s Man in Milan Michael Day talked about the alarming extent to which “keeping it in the family” runs in the veins of the Italian workplace, especially in universities.

Research carried out by the Independent, the Italian newspaper La Reppublica and the investigative magazine L’espresso shed light on just how sclerotic the Italian higher education system is. It even cited the university I frequented on my study placement in Bari as one of the biggest culprits of nepotism. One professor is said to have not only his three sons working in the same faculty but also his five grandchildren.

It’s no wonder that Italy has noticed a slow but inevitable brain drain within its Istruzione Superiore. Reports of brilliant academics swapping the sun-soaked Amalfi coast for the just-plain-soaked shores of Blighty are continuing to emerge. Why do they do it? It’s not a lack of know-how, but more of know-who that sends them packing. They are simply not given recognition for their academic achievements and when faced with a town where you have no connections, you might as well sign on.

The land of the surname, as dubbed by Dr Alessio Vincenti, a psychiatrist based in Milan, has made a mockery of meritocracy. I’m not saying that there has never been an occasion where the right man for the job has indeed turned out to be the boss’ son, but in the case of Dr Frati at the Sapienza University in Rome, who works alongside both his wife and daughter, perhaps it’s not as often as one would think.

The year this research was published not a single Italian university appeared in the Times Higher Education University World Rankings…and none have since. Is family fiefdom ruining the former prestige of Italian Universities? Family might be important, even within the Mafia, but when young academics like Norman Zarcone take their own lives because they can no longer progress within their academic field, the whistle must be blown. Is this family complex destroying Italy?

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