Death-knell for nepotism

March 6, 1998

ITALY's lower house has voted by a crushing majority to end centralised national exams for the assignment of university posts and to allow universities to choose their own academics.

The bill, now awaiting approval by the senate, is the first nail in the coffin for the old university system, in which centralised competitive exams encouraged nepotism and patronage among academic cliques for the assignment of posts.

It is a key element of university minister Luigi Berlinguer's reform programme. Under the new system, each university will be able to hold competitive exams for the lecturers and researchers it needs. The final choice will rest at departmental level.

Until now vast national exams were held periodically when a certain number of posts had become vacant. Examining commissions, made up of senior academics, had no direct interest in choosing the best person for the job. They were often handed out to friends, relatives or the faithful cup-bearers of the academics sitting on the commissions, often irrespective of qualifications. In some cases, it was well known who would get a job before the exam was held, because it was tacitly understood that "a person's turn has come". Inevitably, posts were often used as currency in a complex and nationwide system of reciprocal favours among university baroni.

It is, in theory, also possible for rectors to "call" an academic of particular prestige without going through a competitive exam. But this mechanism is hardly ever used and only to take on eminent academics returning from a career abroad.

University lecturers are considered civil servants, hence the rigid career system. Anyone teaching in a university also has the status of "public official", like a policeman or a magistrate, a fact that makes corruption or malpractice on the part of academics particularly heinous in the eyes of the law.

This is why any alteration in the system for assigning posts requires a complex passage through various commissions and the two houses of parliament.

According to Luciano Guerzoni, under-secretary for universities, the new law "is a decisive step towards the full autonomy of the single universities".

Increasing autonomy is the basic theme of Professor Berlinguer's reform. He has often repeated that competition among universities, for students, funding and prestige, will gradually put right most of the ills from Italian higher education.

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