ITALY'S tireless education minister, Luigi Berlinguer, is seeking to introduce widespread reforms into the country's university system.
He has an unenviable task, according to Indro Montanelli, 88, founder-editor of two national quality dailies, winner of Spain's 1996 Principe de Asturias prize for history and the 1997 Ischia prize for excellence in journalism, and Italy's most brilliant and controversial social observer and critic.
Montanelli sees Professor Berlinguer as essentially capable and well-intentioned, but lacking the resources to be able to attempt any real reforms: "He lacks the men. And when you lack the men, how can you change an entire education system? To whom do you entrust your good intentions? Our education system is nothing short of a complete disaster."
In a country where truth-telling and plain-speaking are traditionally considered to be inadvisable and even perilous, Montanelli's intellectual independence and flouting of taboos are a continuing source of embarrassment to many.
He readily acknowledges a striking parallel with Bertrand Russell as one of spirit rather than substance, even though Russell's statement at the age of 90, "Like Cassandra, I am doomed to prophesy evil and not be believed", appears to be equally applicable to Montanelli himself.
He identifies shameless conformity to a deep-rooted mafioso-style clan mentality, weakness of character and lack of moral and social conscience as the keys to understanding the scandal of Italian universities.
"Our universities have always suffered from that malformation that is fundamental to Italian culture," he explains. "It is an academic culture, but one that came into being at the table of the prince's palace and has remained so ever since. Lay or religious prince - it made no difference. Our culture catered not for the public, who were illiterate as a result of the Counter-Reformation, but for those princes who could read, and thus emerged in a climate of absolute servility.
"In place of princes we now have political parties and economic power, but the principle is still the same: Italian culture does not and never has served the public. Our universities are made for professors, who address other professors - never the common herd. It is forbidden to step outside the academic fortress. The very language of our teachers is mafia language, cosca clan language, because culture in Italy is literally a mafia-style cosca clan."
Access to teaching posts is via a complex public exam system that has little to do with merit and much to do with recommendations and favours. "Servility is the chief quality required to enter the system. Carrying some important professor's case for years. The best way to get on is to marry the daughter of a barone," he says.
"All of this has nothing to do with true culture or merit but rather with career. That is how careers get under way in Italy. As if this were not enough, these people then convince themselves they got in through merit. " Once inside the system one has to abide by the rules of Italian academia, as it can be extremely dangerous to rebel: "Potential rebels and foreigners are at some point simply sucked into the system - or else they become outcasts destined to solitude. The rebel is the arch-enemy who must be isolated and condemned.
"I detest Italian culture precisely because it is academic in this negative sense. My first experiences as a student at Florence University led to an acute crisis of rejection. I found the university had betrayed its mission of spreading true culture. If it does not do this, I thought, what does it do? Professors appear to have no scruples about axing deserving candidates for university posts."
Despite discussion of reform, Montanelli remains sceptical: "Students and academics can forget an Italian palingenesis through new laws and regulations. I am told that England has 6,000 or 7,000 laws: Italy has well over 200,000, which means a veritable legal jungle. The truth is that while the British produce men, we go on producing laws."
He feels that the inability to make real university reforms has to be seen as part of a more general, Italian inability to effect transformations. "I have seen too many transformations in this country that ended up transforming nothing.
"Fascism, for example, began as a form of totalitarianism - Italian and therefore negotiable, like everything else in Italy. History shows that Italy always corrupts everything it does in the name of myths and sacred things. You give Italy Jesus Christ and you get the Roman Catholic Church. Everything you give Italy becomes a parody. This means there is something in our blood."
The cream of Italy's students and academics are therefore to be found abroad, forced to emigrate in order to be judged on merit. "Italians lack the character to be revolutionaries," Montanelli says. "Although I should be advising them to stay on and fight the system, it would not be honest of me to do so as I do not believe they can succeed. Even so, I find they should still somehow be encouraged to rebel in some way. But I exclude violence, which is why in 1968 I found myself reluctantly having to defend the professors. Students have many methods of expressing contempt and indifference towards a professor's lessons without resorting to violence."
Putting the entire national academic staff of 60,000 on early retirement and electing non-Italian commissions to appoint replacement staff for the foreseeable future is, he feels, a logical but not a viable proposition.
"I find no sense in hoping that things will change because I do not believe they will. I have nothing positive whatsoever to say about Italian social or academic culture. How do you solve Italy's university scandal? By eliminating 300 years of history."