Academics working 'little and badly' brace themselves for revolution

September 24, 1999

Italy's university ministry expects 1999-2000 to be the year in which the country's university system experiences radical change.

It anticipates a host of reforms bringing about a new climate of healthy competition between universities which will reward productivity, high standards and merit, and penalise the old inefficiency and self-protective complacency of much of the academic establishment.

Single universities will be free to plan their own degree courses, with only general guidelines from the ministry, and there will be increased autonomy in financial administration. Three plus two year "European" degrees, along with a new and flexible system of credits, is being gradually adopted.

Access to many courses will be increasingly programmed, with aptitude tests becoming more common, and attempts to link secondary school specialisation with the choice of university career, in an effort to combat a dropout rate in excess of 60 per cent.

There will also be a new mechanism for recruiting academics. No longer will centralised, national commissions assign vacant posts. The new commissions will include representatives of the department with the vacancy, in the belief that they will insist on getting the best possible candidate.

The synergy of reforms signals a new era in which universities will compete for students and funding.

Many observers, however, are sceptical that such an established academic system can be reformed. By law all jobs are lifelong, nobody can be sacked, transferred or disciplined and academics can virtually teach as much or as little as they like.

Franco Ferrarotti, the father of modern Italian sociology, said: "In this country everyone loves to talk about revolution but it rocks too many boats. The various proteges will still get jobs, irrespective of merit or qualifications."

Fabio Mussi, of the Democrats of the Left, the largest party in the government coalition, recently admitted that "higher education is the field in which least has changed. Sooner or later we will need real reform."

The Union of University Students, announced demonstrations in protest at programmed entry this autumn, suggesting that "improving university quality should begin with a reform of the legal status of academics, who today work little and badly".

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