Although I personally owe our education to public institutions from high school to the doctorate in Design, in the past few years I have mainly worked in higher education private institutions in Italy and abroad, while still interacting with public universities. Thus, I have had the privilege to be exposed to diverse education models and to deepen my understanding of education systems, both in terms of opportunities and inequalities.

In particular, I had the chance to explore the differences between a knowledge-based instructional system , like the Italian one, and a competence-infused transformational system, like the Anglo-Saxon ones. 

While Italian public universities are still meaningful places for cultural debate and research - despite the ever-decreasing public funding - the reports on Italian graduates highlight how the public university system barely takes care of the employability of their students, especially in the disciplinary areas of liberal arts and humanities, according to the latest data by Almalaurea.

The 2019 report by OECD shows that Italy is the second last country in Europe for degree-holders in the 25-34 age range and the first one for NEET youth in the age group 20-24. Young people prove to be reluctant to pursue a degree program. And, when they do, they can still end up unemployed or under-employed.

These data also show the inequality of the system. If public university students coming from wealthy families have the chance to develop those crucial transferable skills in their extracurricular activities, to nurture an enterprising mindset to approach the job market and to leverage family & friends connections, those who come from less wealthy families can hardly rely on the public school/university education to secure a better socio-economic position. 

Education challenges undermine the social mobility in Italy, which is unfair and hinders social innovation and a more sustainable and equitable economic growth, as the World Bank often notes in their reports too. 

What we see is that a large number of diploma graduates choose traditional disciplines in the field of humanities, politics, social sciences and education - luckily highly popular despite their low employment rate, and while they are generally satisfied with their programs from an intellectual perspective yet they end up dissatisfied with the professional skills acquired during their studies and complain about their work-readiness. Only a half of them are able to secure an internship or a job while they are still studying, and only a tiny minority have an experience consistent to their field of study. So, by the time they graduate, they have a very poor understanding about the existing and upcoming applications, but real, of their discipline. 

Some scholars would argue that universities are not meant as training center, what truly matters is the depth of knowledge and the critical acumen. We would even agree, if universities were actually nurturing personal critical thinking. But in most cases, they simply don’t. 

While we are not in the position to recommend a radical change in Italian education, we would like to suggest that a “solution” my come from design practice and design education, which are intrinsically related to work-readiness skills: critical thinking, complex problem solving, teamwork, written and oral communication. 

Unfortunately, most Italian universities keep humanities, social sciences and education separated from design, and design institutions don’t offer humanities and social sciences’ degree programs. Hence, there is often minimal interplay between students and faculty from these different areas.

And it’s a pity, because we believe that design can play a catalyst role in challenging all disciplines, and especially the aforementioned ones, while making itself truly relevant.

In particular, we believe that the format of speculative design workshops can be a great opportunity to help all students deepen their knowledge, question their role in the society, acquire valuable skills, and, as a cute side effect, eventually increase their work-readiness.