Berlinguer's slow road to radicalism

April 10, 1998

The ills of the university system and the possibility of radical reforms are today one of the most hotly debated issues in Italian politics and the media. If this is the case, it is at least partly thanks to a little-known linguist at Rome's Third University, who in 1994, indignant at what he saw around him, decided to put pen to paper.

Raffaele Simone wrote L'Universita dei Tre Tradimenti, (University of the Three Betrayals). It was a scathing, incisive attack on Italy's state university system and became a bestseller in its field.

From his small office next to Rome's main railway station, Professor Simone is eager to explain why the ambitious reforms of higher education minister Luigi Berlinguer are so slow.

"Berlinguer has chosen a programme of individual, independent reforms ... This may seem over-cautious and timid, but is in fact wise, strategically realistic ... the university establishment is profoundly conservative and defensive, and also powerful. Several of his reforms have aroused resistance, passive and active, and various forms of boycotting."

A key reform involves the competitive exams to assign vacant posts, which until now have been organised at national level, with academic baroni sitting on the commissions. The reform would give individual universities the direct responsibility of picking the best person for the job. "That reform has been bouncing around the various houses of parliament and commissions for about a year and a half," Professor Simone said.

"In Italy there is massive crossover between the universities, politics and the higher echelons of state corporations. Many MPs and politicians are also professori, there are many professori on the boards of directors of state holding companies, the state broadcasting authority, and so on," he said.

"There is no obstacle to a man holding a chair in a university and also having a key job in politics or in major corporations. Moreover, an academic engaged in politics or private enterprise maintains both the status and salary of his academic post," he added.

Two important reforms are a clear contract between universities and students which establishes rights and duties, and a new, American-style system of credits towards a degree.

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