From Rome's reformer

April 23, 1999


When Ortensio Zecchino took over as university and research minister last October with the creation of the latest Italian government, pundits expected him to take the wind out of his predecessor's radical plans for state universities.

A former lawyer and senator, Mr Zecchino is also a former member of the centrist Christian Democrats - his predecessor, Luigi Berlinguer, on the other hand, was a former Communist Mr Zecchino has not only given fresh impetus to the existing reform programme, but he has dared accuse Italy's powerful academics of working too little.

He has also done something none of his predecessors attempted, challenging the cast-iron, life-long tenure academics enjoy and which many see as an obstacle to a more efficient and meritocratic university system.

Mr Zecchino says that most of the basic changes had already been made. "There have already been important reforms. There is autonomy in defining each university's statute, which involves a greater degree of control over the organisation and running. With budget autonomy each university can now decide how to use the money it receives. What is still lacking is didactic autonomy, which will bring a real revolution.

He says legislation giving each university the power to design its own courses is before parliament and a new degree structure has been approved - a three-year basic degree, followed by an optional further two years. He says this structure is considered by many of Europe's university ministers as a basis for European harmonisation.

He has often emphasised the need to make sure that the academics, in a country in which they can neither be sacked, demoted or transferred against their will, do what they are paid for.

"There must be constant monitoring both of students and professors," he said. "Everything that happens inside the university must be under a spotlight, including the efficiency of the academic and administrative staff. This involves great difficulties because many people consider themselves sovereign and refuse to accept any kind of judgement.

"We should eliminate tenure, the life-long job, and have academics evaluated every five or ten years by a body of experts, possibly including foreigners. This happens in universities in the United States, Holland, and the United Kingdom, and so it should, because we cannot have people who for ten or 20 years do not write anything of importance."

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