The decline of Italy's universities, none of which currently appear in the world's top 200, is a constant source of lament among the country's chattering classes.
But the reason for this sorry state is laid bare by new research that shows the extent of nepotism in higher education. The grip of family fiefdoms is being blamed for a nationwide brain drain.
The investigative magazine L'Espresso and the newspaper La Repubblica have revealed the astonishing degree to which lecturing jobs are kept in the family in Italy's sclerotic higher education system. In Rome's La Sapienza University, for example, a third of the teaching staff have close family members as fellow lecturers. Overall, the country's higher institutions are 10 times more likely than other places of work to employ two or more members of the same family.
Roberto Perotti, a professor of economics at the private Bocconi University in Milan and the author of L'universita Truccata ("The Rigged University"), said: "Of course the nepotism is connected to the lower university standards. If a professor at Stanford gave a teaching job to his wife, there would be an outcry. But then in the top [US] universities, people are there on merit."
Professor Perotti said the Espresso findings reflected new research he was preparing to publish. "In some of Italy's state university departments 30 per cent of the staff have a close family relative present. This is nepotism and corruption, and it's everywhere. Though some places are particularly bad."
The University of Bari, in the southern region of Puglia, springs to mind. The economics faculty must seem like a home from home for Professor Lanfranco Massari as he bumps into sons Lanfranco Jr, Gilberto and Giansiro, or his five grandchildren who work in the same department. At Palermo's architecture faculty, Professor Angelo Milone enjoys the company of his brother, son and daughter as fellow researchers.
The chancellor of one of Italy's top institutions is also named in the report. Luigi Frati, chancellor and professor of medicine at La Sapienza University, has both his wife and daughter employed in the same department. His son works in a neighbouring medical science faculty. The Dolci clan, led by Professor Giovanni Dolci, has an even greater family presence in the Rome Institution's medical faculty.
Professor Frati said: "We've got to start seeing the value of meritocracy. Italy is not used to meritocracy." He denied that his family members had got their jobs through favouritism.
However, one psychiatrist who recently qualified in medicine at La Sapienza, told The Independent he had left Rome to find work in Milan because nepotism was less widespread in the north of the country.
Dr Alessio Vincenti, who has also conducted research at Harvard, in the US, home to arguably the world's top medical school, said: "I couldn't get work in Rome because I'm not connected. This is Italy, the land of the surname. It's disgusting. But that's how it is and everyone knows it."
Reports have repeatedly emerged over the past few years of brilliant Italian academics moving US or UK universities, to receive recognition for their teaching and research rather than for their family ties. Not one Italian institution appears in the Times Higher Education 2010 world university rankings. Taiwanese, South Korean, and Egyptian universities are present, however. In the rival QS world rankings, the highest-placed Italian university is Bologna at 176. La Repubblica pointed to the tragic personal consequences as well as the economic stagnation of the corruption. In Palermo last week, Norman Zarcone, who had recently completed a PhD in philosophy, killed himself after telling his father there was no way he could progress in his university department.