Berlinguer's soft revolution

November 7, 1997

Luigi Berlinguer has his hands full. As Italy's first minister for both schools and higher education, including scientific research, he is spearheading a radical renewal of the country's entire education system.

As a man of the political left, closely tied to the old Communist Party and now to the current Democratic Party of the Left, he is pushing reforms which one might have expected more from the liberal centre and right.

In this crusade Professor Berlinguer is inevitably stepping on many toes. He is under attack from students of the far left for trying to regulate admission to universities, from Roman Catholic groups for not providing enough support for their schools, and from the powerful caste of the professori, who see his steps to deregulate the universities as an attack on the vested interests of cast iron job security, freedom from controls and the possibility of dedicating time to private business while occupying a chair as a mark of prestige.

Born in Sardinia in 1932, Professor Berlinguer is a cousin of the late Enrico Berlinguer who, as secretary of the largest and most powerful communist party in the West, "invented" Eurocommunism. He is a law professor and former rector of Siena University and secretary-general of the Italian Rectors' Conference.

Tall and loose-limbed with a bush of wiry white hair, Professor Berlinguer, like many Sardinians, is gruff and remote in public but becomes affable, courteous and humorous in less formal surroundings.

His avowed aim is to produce a "soft revolution" in Italy's higher education system, which he believes would not respond to attempts at sudden reform. Professor Berlinguer's ministry is in a massive white stone building in the Eur satellite-city south of Rome, built in the early 1940s in the modern-monumental style favoured by the Fascist regime. Ironically, this man of the political left works from an office which still betrays some of the architectural trappings of a right-wing dictatorship.

"We are making a number of single key reforms which, working together, will produce a gradual but profound renewal of the entire system," he says. "The combination of greater flexibility in employment of academics, of quality controls on research and the distribution of funding will succeed. A physiological process will take place in which the best will out and inefficiency will be penalised.

"A sudden, radical revolution is not possible. The academic establishment in Italy is extremely strong and capable of opposing enormous resistance to change. Today we have an academic system that developed in a regime of paternalism and centralised authoritarianism, with everything rigidly regulated. This has produced bad results.

"But with a strategy of piecemeal deregulation, I believe we can achieve a radical transformation."

So far, Professor Berlinguer has succeeded on several fronts. He has increased the academic autonomy of Italy's 60-odd state universities, and if, as Professor Berlinguer hopes, the necessary laws are passed by parliament, each faculty will soon be free to design its own degree courses and curricula, with only general supervision from Rome.

Greater flexibility in jobs already exists, and universities can hire academics on one-year contracts, renewable for up to six years. Moreover, the first phase of an academic career no longer automatically implies a job for life, and academics who do not produce will not be given a permanent post.

"A crucial and essential reform concerns the system of centralised competitive exams held every few years to assign the available posts all over the country," says Professor Berlinguer. "This will change. In future, each university will hire its own academics according to its own criteria, regulated only by a general frame of common, light rules."

Professor Berlinguer's aim is to force universities to compete with each other so they will pick the best person for the job. It is generally recognised that till now many posts have been assigned on the basis of patronage, connections or service to the powerful academic baroni who dominate the exam commissions that assign the jobs.

Professor Berlinguer has also set in motion a new system that assigns funds to universities as a yearly lump sum, no longer pre-earmarked for, say, salaries, maintenance or laboratories. Each university will be free to spend money as it sees fit. Money for research will also be distributed differently. Till now it was paid out more or less indiscriminately, but from now on each project will be evaluated by a commission of trustees which will also charge anonymous referees to keep tabs on it.

"The combination of these reforms will put universities directly in competition with each other. Students will know that a degree from University X is just a piece of paper, while a degree from universities Y or Z has prestige in the job market. The formal, legal status of a degree under Italian law for the time being remains, but students will learn to discriminate between universities.

"There are behaviour patterns in Italy's universities that see higher education as a service without responsibilities. There are many academics who are fully dedicated to teaching and research. But also many who are more interested in their private professions. And there are no controls.

"Now, however, the atmosphere of competition regarding quality, productivity and service to students will gradually, but inevitably, weed out the non-producers."

Professor Berlinguer is pushing deregulation, but believes that security of employment also has its merits. "In research, an academic should be allowed to pursue a long-term project without the pressure of having to produce fast and impressive results. But, of course, he will be subject to evaluation and financial support, or lack of support, for that project."

A European vision of higher education and research appears to be close to Professor Berlinguer's heart. He recently met his French counterpart, Claude All gre, and discussed the creation of "European degrees", to be offered in the universities of various countries. "Mr All gre had already discussed this with the German minister so we have a group of three countries already involved.

"The economies of Europe have already integrated, as has private enterprise. The same has not happened yet in higher education. As a first step we are aiming for a standardisation of the duration of the various degree courses and greater reciprocal recognition of academic titles.

"With PhDs we are already well on the way to a common understanding of an accepted European standard. In higher education in general, I believe solid results will already appear around the year 2000."

Among Professor Berlinguer's many reforms is a system of financial incentives for research doctorates in collaboration with non-Italian universities -primarily European but also from any other country.

On paper, Professor Berlinguer appears eminently suited to radically reforming Italy's education system.

"As an academic I know the university system intimately. But what also helps is that I have political experience, as an MP for six years and during 1994 as chairman of the MPs of the coalition of the centre-left. This means that I am familiar with the workings of politics, with the political mechanisms which are the basis of running a sector like education, and of making important and difficult reforms."

Professor Berlinguer is Italy's first combined education, university and research minister. "This is very positive because one can harmonise policy and follow through. Today Spain, France and Germany also have a single minister for the education and research sector. The only drawback is that there is an unbelievable amount of work to do."

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