In its quest to reform its research funding, Italy has turned to the UK for advice. Paul Bompard reports
The venue was a small villa surrounded by thick vegetation on the outskirts of Rome. The business: a discreet, informal seminar between higher education experts from the United Kingdom and their Italian counterparts.
The subject of the conference, cautiously titled "Change For The Better?" and organised by the British Council in Rome, was the evaluation of research, implicitly its funding, something that has become firmly established in the UK over the past 15 years, but in Italy is still, to a great extent, a gleam in the eyes of some academics and university ministry officials.
In an official capacity as British ambassador, Tom Richardson said in his introduction: "There is no attempt to export a particular pattern, but rather to exchange experiences, both positive and negative, respecting national aspirations."
He did point out, however, that: "The UK has experienced radical changes and we now have Italy embarking on a programme of reforms, so UK speakers may be able to pass on a few tips."
The British participants were Sir Graeme Davies, vice-chancelor of Glasgow University; Sir Brian Follett, vice-chancellor of Warwick University; Bahram Bekhradnia, policy director of the Higher Education Funding Council for England; and Sharon Memis, the British Council's director for governance, science and society.
The Italian delegation included Gian Tommaso Scarascia Mugnozza, president of the National Academy of Sciences, which provided the Villa Lontana venue; Carlo Calandra Buonaura, president of the National Institute for the Physics of Materials, Raffaella Simili, member of the Committee for Evaluation and Research of the university and research ministry, Fabio Pistella, counsellor to the university and research minister, and Gioacchino Fonti, of the ministry's office for international relations. However, Paolo Fasella, the ministry counsellor who was a major force in organising the meeting, died a few days before the event.
The general impression was that while some Italian academics and the ministry itself are keen to set up an effective system of objective evaluation of research, the political and legislative steps necessary will be difficult. At the moment, Italy is conditioned by a very egalitarian academic and research structure that makes it difficult to apply any kind of carrot-and-stick policy.
After the meeting, Scarascia Mugnozza explained: "It is only since 1993 that the concept of 'evaluation' has been officially discussed. In theory some mechanisms of evaluation have been created, but they have yet to swing effectively into action. The discussions were lively and useful because the UK is very advanced in this field. There are some areas where the UK experience is of particular interest."
Pistella described the conference as a very useful exchange of ideas: "It emerged, among other things, that it is not all roses in the UK. Our British colleagues highlighted some initial errors that we hope to avoid.
"What is clear is that there must be a multiple system of assessment - one for teaching, another for research in universities, another for research institutes. Also, it is hard to evaluate results if one does not first establish goals.
"To avoid hostile reactions, it would be useful to go to the researchers themselves and ask them, 'What are you aiming for?' and then to judge the results. This would involve the researchers in the reform, rather than having a reform dropped on them out of the blue. It is essential to understand what exactly one is evaluating; a particular research programme, a researcher's teaching abilities, the compliance between aims and results. And it is important to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable results.
"The minister (Ortensio Zecchino) is very keen on introducing rigorous evaluation," Pistella continued. "But Italy today is not the UK in the Thatcher years, and the reforms must be gradual, careful and well thought out."
Sir Graeme commented: "For the Italians it seems to be, in practice, a question of reinforcing elitism without frightening the horses. This could be done by introducing a small amount of money to be distributed on the basis of evaluation, and then gradually increasing that amount while decreasing what is distributed uniformly. But what we are doing is not trying to export a UK system, but expose our experience, bearing in mind that it would have to adapt to the national situation."
Bekhradnia added: "The Italians seem to be concentrating on the concept of ex-ante evaluation. What they should move towards is an ex-post system. The surprising thing here, compared the with UK, is that it seems to be the academics who are eager for reform, while the politicians are lagging behind. A strong political drive is needed to introduce a new system."
Sir Brian summarised the situation by posing a number of questions: "Some countries are interested in the competitive British approach to both research and teaching. The point is, however, that each country must decide what it wants - does it want better teaching or better research, lower drop-out rates, or simply lower costs?"