Italian academic turned minister signals shift away from metrics

Lorenzo Fioramonti wants to ‘put his ideas to the test’ and end the country’s brain drain

November 20, 2019
Source: Reuters
Moderniser ‘I want the system to be more transparent and meritocratic…If we invest, we can attract Italians back’

Lorenzo Fioramonti did not intend to spend more than a decade abroad when he left Italy to start his academic career.

But despite a formidable publication record, including 10 well-received books and 60 peer-reviewed articles on economics and international relations, as well as an impressive following among influential economists, he was unable to secure an academic post in his homeland.

“Each time I applied, the process took longer and longer – the selection process was never-ending,” recalled Professor Fioramonti, now Italy’s minister for education, universities and research. His return followed his nomination to parliament by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in January 2018, with his election three months later ending his time in South Africa, where he was professor of economics at the University of Pretoria.

In September, he was made a minister in the coalition government of Five Star and the centre-left Democratic Party. In that role, he quickly made his mark with progressive policies, such as introducing the compulsory study of climate change in schools. He has also suggested that crucifixes be removed from classrooms to create a more inclusive environment for non-Christians – sparking fury among conservatives from Matteo Salvini’s hard-right League party.

In higher education, Professor Fioramonti wants to do more to bring back some of the many highly talented Italian scholars who, like him, have gone elsewhere to ply their trade; some 7,800 Italian academics work in UK universities, for instance, with no other country supplying more foreign staff.

“I’m a child of the Italian brain drain,” Professor Fioramonti told Times Higher Education in an interview, held at Rome’s LUISS Guido Carli University during the inaugural summit of the Social Sciences Universities Network earlier this month. “I left when I was 23 to go to the UK and then the US, which was out of curiosity as I wanted to travel. But when I went to Germany and South Africa, it was out of need,” he said, explaining that he “wanted to start his career but it was impossible to do it in Italy”.

Now 42, Professor Fioramonti said he enjoyed his time at Pretoria but recognised that it should be easier for Italian émigré academics to apply to Italian universities, which have, in the past, been criticised for their nepotism and high levels of inwardness.

“I want to continue making the system more transparent and meritocratic, although I think it is very different [from and better than it was] 20 years ago,” he said. “If we invest in research and training, we can pay people better and attract Italians back – I think we can have brain gain, though it will be hard to do.

“I will keep fighting for these things because investing in research and training is the only way to build a better society for all. This is the reason I came back – I told them, ‘Let me put my ideas to the test,’” explained Professor Fioramonti.

As an economist, Professor Fioramonti has been a critic of using gross domestic product as the principal measure of a country’s success. He is likewise critical of Italy’s complex evaluation system of academics and institutions, which is heavily reliant on citation metrics – an approach that has led to “citation clubs” and other game-playing, critics claim.

From next year, a new set of indicators based on impact, such as patents and contribution to society, will be added to evaluation criteria, Professor Fioramonti explained. “What you measure affects what you do; if you have the wrong measures, you produce the wrong things. This is as true for universities as it is for economics,” he said.

“Our university assessments are too influenced by quality measures related to research outputs,” he continued, adding that he has changed the assessment system to ensure that measures reflecting how institutions have supported and advanced society “become as important as publication records”.

This new emphasis on impact over metrics will be welcomed by many academics, but it will surely do little to encourage efforts by Italian universities to improve their performance against global peers. The world’s eighth largest economy by GDP had just one institution in the top 150 of THE’s most recent World University Rankings, despite boasting academia’s oldest institution in the University of Bologna, founded in 1088.

“I’m not going to chase university rankings,” insisted Professor Fioramonti. “Of course, I would like to see our universities become more attractive, but if they are improving [without securing better rankings] I am not worried.”

Indeed, Professor Fioramonti told THE that Italian universities had been unfairly maligned on account of their poor global rankings, saying they had done an “incredible job” given the resources available to them. “We are fifth or sixth in Europe in what we spend, but we are number one in terms of productivity, so I do challenge this idea that our sector is backwards in any way,” he said. “Our people achieve so much. Just imagine what we could achieve if we were able to invest in more funding.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Academic turned minister trims the weight of metrics

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