Academics in Italy have boycotted assessment. What has it achieved?

Many Italians have refused to take part in the country’s research assessment exercise. Alberto Baccini and Giuseppe De Nicolao consider the protest’s impact

April 21, 2016
Elly Walton illustration (21 April 2016)
Source: Elly Walton

UK academics who dislike the research excellence framework often suggest boycotting it. But could it ever really happen? And what would the consequences be?

Italy provides some evidence. The country has its own version of the REF, known as the VQR (“Evaluation of Research Quality”). Academics were required to submit, by 15 March, two publications published between 2011 and 2014 to be assessed via a hybrid system of peer review and metrics. But Italian universities are in turmoil because of the refusal of large numbers to do so.

According to Anvur, the government agency managing the VQR, the refuseniks account for 8 per cent of Italy’s academics, but they are distributed unevenly. Less than 1 per cent of academics at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice joined the boycott. However, the Sapienza University of Rome – Italy’s largest university – reported rates of about 14 per cent, the University of Pisa 23 per cent and the University of Salento more than 29 per cent. This will have serious financial consequences because the fraction of higher education funding assigned on the basis of the VQR is due to rise from 16 per cent in 2016 to 24 per cent by 2020. It is probably with this in mind that Anvur reopened the submission process two weeks after the original deadline, with a new deadline of 15 April. Some rectors took the opportunity to select and submit papers by academics participating in the protest.

The concern expressed by the Conference of Rectors of Italian Universities (CRUI) is ironic. Its former president wrote last summer to Italy’s prime minister threatening a VQR boycott in protest against a 20 per cent drop in public funding over the past five years, which has pushed the proportion of Italy’s gross domestic product spent on higher education below that of almost every other developed country and accelerated a 19 per cent decline in the number of tenured positions since 2008. By the time the new CRUI president withdrew the threat last autumn, the #stopVQR initiative had gained significant momentum.

Fearing for their budgets, rectors responded with both carrots and sticks. A few weeks before the submission deadline, the CRUI announced a “university spring day”, on which every campus would hold a debate about the problems facing Italian universities. Meanwhile, Pisa suspended all planned appointments, promotions and payment of research expenses until the effect of the boycott on its budget is ascertained. And the University of Pavia announced that future resources would be distributed to departments on the basis of their VQR results: hence, fewer protesters means more resources.

The #stopVQR movement contains at least three wings. The first objects to the freezing of academic salaries since 2010, exacerbated by the government’s decision to disregard the years 2011 to 2015 in pension calculations (a measure not imposed on any other public sector workers). The more than 14,000 professors who signed a petition promoted by Carlo Ferraro, a professor of engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin, argue that they should not be evaluated for a period that will not count in calculating their years of service.

The second wing is focused on research funding. Giuseppe Mingione, a highly cited mathematician at the University of Parma, complained in a newspaper interview that in the past four years he had received only €2,500, compared with 100 times that among collaborators abroad.

The third wing objects to the VQR on principle. According to Stefano Semplici, a professor of philosophy at the University of Rome II – Tor Vergata, it pushes professors to neglect teaching and provides a curtain behind which reductions in resources and student grants can be hidden. After the previous VQR, funding allocations shifted from poor southern universities to wealthy northern ones, exacerbating the former’s problems with shrinking resources, staff and students. Protesters also object to the VQR’s enormous cost and methodological weaknesses. These are set out on the blog, which has had more than 13 million hits since 2011.

Recently, two controversies gained national attention. The first regards the salaries of Anvur board members, which account for about 16 per cent of its total budget. The second relates to board appointments, which required the 15 candidates to write a position paper. Among the four chosen by Stefania Giannini, the minister of education, universities and research, was Paolo Miccoli, professor of surgery at Pisa. During scrutiny by a parliamentary commission, one member noted that entire sentences of Miccoli’s paper were drawn from four uncited sources. Yet his appointment was still approved.

It is too early to say whether the #stopVQR protest will achieve its objectives. But one thing is clear: active academic resistance to research assessment can make university leaders take notice in a way that no amount of grumbling in the common room can.

Alberto Baccini is professor of economics at the University of Siena and Giuseppe De Nicolao is professor of control and systems engineering at the University of Pavia. They are both on the editorial board of


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Reader's comments (4)

As a coordinator of one of the sub-groups evaluating research in the present VQR I can assure the UK public that our evaluation procedure is alive and well. The participation rate has dropped only 3.3 % from the preceding VQR (95.3 to 92.0). There is a stable percentage of 5% of professors not publishing anything, so that 8% drops to 3% of real protesters. Source: document of the National agency for the evaluation of the universities, I agree completely with the protest of the colleagues nationwide about salaries and funding, but I do not think they chose the right action. Having the (scarce) governmental founds distributed according to merit and not academic camarillas is a common interest. The present method has some shortcomings but nobody really wants to go back to the past.
As a protester to the VQR I would like to reassure the UK readers of three things: 1) the Italian VQR is a farce, it costs more than the amount of money the government gives for research and is based on a methodology that has been proved being just downright wrong; 2) the percentages given are provided by the agency organizing the VQR, so it's like asking the government of North Korea if there is a protest; 3) the source of the numbers notwithstanding, the numbers themselves count the papers collected, forcibly and without consent of the authors, by the agency; so anyone stating that it is a representative number is sorely mistaken; I won't suggest other reasons for such a mistake. The three above stated, I will add that yes, I am _VERY_ angry with the current establishment.
What is not highlighted in the above comment of colleague natali is that the distribution of the adherence to the protest is not uniform. There are many Universities in the country that have a percentage of submitted papers that is lower than 90% and one main and prestigious Institution where only the 86% of the papers have been presented. Let me discuss an example, in a different scenario. Let us consider a scientific paper submitted to a top-ranked journal, and assume that this paper has the aim of compare two different approaches, that we will name approach A and approach B. Now assume that the authors of the paper state that, for some reason, they was able to score the approach A in the 100% of the cases, while the approach B has been tested only in the 86% of the trials and, in the remaining 14% of cases the authors assumed a score of zero for the approach B. Now, as an Editor of the journal, what do you think about this paper ? Generally in these cases my suggestion is to reject the paper, not because of missing data, but because the paper is not technically sound. Now what I really cannot understand is why, in Italy, the common practice that we apply in the revision process of the scientific Literature becomes something of completely unknown when we have to measure the research quality of our institutions. Measuring the quality of the research of whole Departments, Institutions, of a Nation, wouldn’t adhere to much more rigorous scientific and methodological practices than the revision of a single paper ? In my opinion this is another clear example that the aim of what we call “valutazione della qualità della Ricerca VQR” (evaluation of the research quality) is not the improvement of the Research quality of our Nation but justifying an unequal and unfair distribution of the severe cuts that our Governments are applying to the public research funding. This is the thesis demonstrated, by the other things, in a recent book edited prof. Viesti and published by Donzelli. Therefore let me respond to my colleague that there is nothing to be happy of in this context. Its triumphalist tones are completely inappropriate. In Italy we should staring working very hard to completely rethink our evaluation system with the aim of promoting the improvement of the whole public research system.
First of all, I totally agree with previous 2 comments by migliardi and decaro. And, of course, with the ideas and comments of the authors of the paper, especially referring to technical (and political too!) aspects of the italian research assessment process. Further, in my opinion the present italian VQR is a kind of tool that, far from helping to improve the whole italian national academic and research system, it seems to have the only goal to depauperate and cut funds to most universities, especially in the Southern Italy, just to concentrate the (small) government funding to few institutions, generally located in the Northern Italy. "Strange" parameters, like for example the de facto use of the social and economic development level of the region where the University is (through the level of employment of the University graduates: obviously there is a better "chance" of employment where the productive development is high), are largely used to "punish" the less "lucky" Universities, heavily cutting their funds, and to reward (by just a "small" funds cut, anyway!) the Universities located in economically strong regions of the Country. The goal, I mean, seems to be not to improve and rebalance the quality of research and teaching in the whole Country, but "reward" few institutions to make them a kind of (many few!) centres of excellence. Another side of the coin is the "migration" of thousands of students from the Southern Italy regions to the Northern Italy Universities, with several effects: to improve, more, the Northern Italy regions economy, to increase the importance of the Northern Italy Universities, and to weaken, even more, the Southern Italy economy and its academic and research institutions, and so on, in a kind of "vicious circle". “Starving the beast”, the economy largely used term, seems to be appropriate in this case, where the “beast” should be the Southern Italy Universities, as well as their academics and researcher.