by Marzia De Giuli
ROME, Feb. 2 (Xinhua) -- Silvia Montano, who was awarded by President Giorgio Napolitano as one of the 25 best high school students in Italy last November, decided not to attend university and instead grab "a rare job opportunity" to earn 850 euros (1,159 U.S. dollars) per month.
"Soon after I got high school accountant qualification six months ago, I was offered a three-year apprentice contract, and I could not refuse in these times of crisis," he said.
Like Silvia, thousands of Italian teenagers choose to work instead of going to college.
"The job and wage I could get after another four or five years' of study would be likely very similar to the one that I have been offered," Silvia said.
Earlier this week, the National University Council (CUN), an elected body representing the Italian university system, warned in a report that the country's universities were in deep trouble, with admissions, graduates, doctorates, teachers and funds all dropping.
The report said the number of students enrolled decreased by 17 percent from 338,482 in the 2003-2004 academic year to just over 280,144 in the 2011-2012 year.
"It was as if an entire university had disappeared over a decade," CUN chairman Andrea Lenzi told Xinhua, adding the report was making an appeal not only to political forces, ahead of the Feb. 24-25 national elections, but "above all else to the whole country."
It is a grave concern that, in a country with more than 35 percent youth unemployment, more and more students are not interested in studying in college.
Valentina Capizzi, a high school graduate who is now working as a shop assistant at the Milan railways station, said "I liked studying ... But I also knew that I risked losing time ... So I accepted this job and I feel happy now."
Only 19 percent of the 30-34 years old in Italy have a college degree compared with a European average of 30 percent, according to the CUN report.
Walter Passerini, a leading expert on labor, said there is a serious lack of confidence that a higher qualification guarantees a better job opportunity.
Some of the best students choose to study abroad. "I know well that I can not fulfill myself in a country whose job market is at a standstill." said Filippo De Toma, a student.
"I am filing applications to join an economic program in England. Selection criteria are much stricter than in Italy, but my results are good and I have some hopes," he said.
However, Passerini stressed that international competition will be increasingly centered on high skills, and Italy needs to be in tune with the demands of a globalized economy.H Many experts agree that a university degree is still rewarding in terms of both career and economic opportunities in the medium and long term.