From where I sit - Moving deckchairs on the Titanic

January 15, 2009

British academics contemplating the research assessment exercise over a glass of something strong would do well to consider the alternative: working in a university system that makes no attempt to audit research quality or to assign funding according to excellence. Being judged is hard; not being judged is worse.

Benvenuti in Italia. The state of Italian higher education is such that one is tempted to comment that Job should have counted his blessings. A brief list of problems facing the rettori (elected vice-chancellors) would have to include impending financial collapse, soaring student drop-out rates, a brain drain of frightening dimensions and a student body that thinks it is terribly chic to occupy faculty buildings and demand, among other more reasonable things, the "right" to conduct advanced research.

In these circumstances, improving research quality assessment might seem like shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic. Roberto Perotti, an economist at Milan's Bocconi University, suggests the opposite in his powerfully argued study, L'Universita truccata (The Rigged University).

According to Professor Perotti, the malaise in the Italian university system has its origin in the failure to reward excellence in research. Were a significant part of Italian universities' budgets assigned according to performance in a rigorously administered research audit, the least attractive aspects of the Italian university, such as promotions and appointments being made according to length of service or even family ties, would diminish. Universities would have to invest in talent or decline - even close.

It is difficult to gainsay Professor Perotti's indictment. As things stand, promotions and appointments are often made with blithe disregard for the quality of the candidates. All appointments and promotions are made by public examination and decided by an elected committee in which the home university has only one representative, but it is normal for the chief professors in any given subject to rig such concorsi pubblici according to their convenience.

An aspiring young scholar who fails to ingratiate himself (gender bias is another failing of the system) with the baroni, or tenured professors, will soon become an unemployed scholar.

Yet the introduction of merit criteria would likely give vested interests an incentive to tweak the criteria rather than make painful reforms. The fate of the CIVR (Comitato di Indirizzo per la Valutazione della Ricerca), the one sketchy attempt in 2004-05 to assess research quality, gives one pause. Its results, which upset a lot of established reputations, were duly ignored for funding purposes. Citation-counting, a possible alternative, would naturally be greeted with horror.

It would certainly be quite impossible in Italy to organise a comprehensive effort like Britain's RAE. Why? Because Italian professors have enjoyed decades of well-financed unaccountability. For most baroni, the idea that eminent persons such as themselves should be publicly judged, or waste their time judging others, is simply intolerable.

For this reason, the decline of Italian universities' research reputation seems likely to continue and even accelerate. I see from Times Higher Education that the 2008 RAE has revealed "pockets of excellence" in hitherto unsuspected places and has exposed lacunae at previously highly-rated institutions. It is painful to be on the receiving end of such judgments. But it is much worse not to make them at all.

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