From where I sit: Smarting Italians look for change

November 19, 2009

Italy's more progressive academics are still smarting from the 2009 Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings. Despite some hair-splitting over the weighting of the criteria, few have pretended that the results were anything but dismal. "Islands of excellence", such as the faculty of physics at Rome's La Sapienza University, can no longer hide the inferior performance of Italian universities relative to their continental European peers.

The Berlusconi Government, for all the buffoonish activities of its leader, has taken university reform more seriously than its predecessor. On 28 October, Mariastella Gelmini, the Minister of Education, presented a parliamentary Bill whose main prescriptions will be familiar to British academics; whether she can persuade the university establishment to swallow the medicine is another matter. Parliament is full of superannuated professors itching to water down the proposed reforms.

First, she wants universities to be less like the Civil Service and more like businesses. To this end, she is proposing that rettori (elected vice-chancellors) should be limited to an eight-year term and be flanked by a professional general manager. The administrative council of the university will become a de facto board of directors, with at least 40 per cent of its members drawn from outside the university. It is intended that public-spirited business people will serve. University senates will occupy themselves purely with academic concerns. Given that many Italian universities have bankrupted themselves, this is no bad thing.

Second, Ms Gelmini wants to professionalise the staff. Professors will dedicate 1,500 hours a year to research and teaching, outside consultancies will be curbed, professors who do not meet standards will miss pay increments, and teaching and research assessment will be tougher. Farming out teaching to unqualified assistants will rightly be banned.

Last, Ms Gelmini proposes to reform the hiring system along German lines. To become professor, one will need an abilitazione from a national committee of evaluation, chosen by lot from a pool of senior scholars. One member of the committee, astonishingly, will be an outside referee from a country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Young researchers, meanwhile, will become de facto assistant professors with a full teaching load and a six-year tenure-track contract. These measures are designed to persuade the Italian academic diaspora to return and inject competition into the system.

There are problems. The reform will be implemented on the cheap. The Bill is shot through with reminders that no extra costs can be incurred. It would have been better to pension off the over-sixties before introducing the reform, but a public debt of 115 per cent of gross domestic product rules this out. Some key decisions, notably that of linking a considerable part of the university's budget to its research performance and management skills, have been fudged.

The Italian vice is trasformismo, the art of managing change to ensure everything remains the same. But having only one university (Bologna) in the top 200 has deeply dented national pride. Yet having better universities is impossible without eradicating what Fleet Street used to call Spanish practices. Ms Gelmini, to her credit, seems set on altering Italian practices that are every bit as baroque.

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