Fear for Italy's tenure reform

January 19, 2001

Rectors fear that much-needed university reform legislation before the Italian parliament will fall victim to May's general elections.

In particular, rectors are keen to see changes to academic tenure. For Italian academics, immunity from being sacked, transferred, demoted or otherwise disciplined is supposed to guarantee independence from political and ideological pressures. In practice, how much an academic works or does not work depends on his or her conscience. Many work extremely hard, others do little or nothing in terms of teaching and research and dedicate most of their energies to private practice.

Pietro Ichino, law professor at Milan University, an expert on labour relations and a former Communist Party MP, wrote in the Corriere della Sera that Italy's ambitious reform of its higher education system will never succeed unless academics can be sacked or transferred if they are unproductive or in breach of disciplinary codes.

Professor Ichino said: "The professors teach only if they feel like it and only what they have studied (or presume they have studied) by their own choice. Nobody has the power to make them update or modify their methods. It is even difficult to ask them to change timetable or lecture hall.

"Many do not prepare their lectures properly, continue teaching the same things for 20 years, are absent when they should be receiving students, postpone exams at the last minute without telling anyone, refuse to oversee degree theses and delegate their duties to others.

"Efficiency and productivity are appreciated, but not obligatory. The university chair, today, is a lifelong honorific post.

"The system rewards lack of productivity. Those who teach little and badly have few students, nobody looks for them and they live more quietly. And nobody can ever take away their salaries, with progressive pay hikes right up to pension time.

"University professors should be sacked, or at least transferred, if they do not reach a minimum level of productivity."

Luciano Modica, president of the Italian Rectors Conference and rector of Pisa University, said: "I agree that we need a new type of relationship between lecturers and universities, including the possibility that they be sacked if unproductive. But we must be very careful that lack of productivity is not used as an excuse to eliminate academics for ideological or other reasons. The danger of this after the second world war was exaggerated, and this led to exaggerated privileges for academics.

"For years, the rectors' conference has asked for legislation that clearly establishes the duties of academics and allows them to be dismissed or transferred if they neglect these duties. The law now being discussed in parliament is a step in this direction. But, with only three months left in this legislature, I doubt that it will be passed, so we will have to start all over again with the next government."

Raffaele Simone, the eminent Rome linguist who in recent years has denounced the absenteeism of many academics, believes that legislation to improve the accountability of university teachers is unlikely. "More than half the government is made up of academics; half of Italy's MPs are academics. To expect that these people will pass legislation that destroys these privileges is like expecting them to shoot themselves."

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