Minister slams lazy lecturers

February 5, 1999

Italy's new university minister Ortensio Zecchino has told academics that they must work harder and reduce their outside interests.

"Italian academics work too little, less than their European colleagues, and the quality of graduates suffers," he said. The established workload must be increased, he said. He also condemned the widespread habit of moonlighting in the professions and in private universities.

His charges, the strongest ever made by a university minister, were widely echoed in the media. Never before had a minister so directly attacked the deeply entrenched privileges and the freedom from controls or discipline of Italy's academics. Not even his predecessor, Luigi Berlinguer, had dared to challenge the university establishment so outspokenly.

Mr Zecchino launched his attack at a conference on universities at the Accademia Dei Lincei, Italy's supreme academic and cultural body, composed of eminent and venerable academics.

There must be "an increase in the duties of university teachers", he told the academics. "All too often private universities use academics from the state universities, with the inevitable result that their diligence is reduced in the universities where they are primarily employed."

Mr Zecchino, a senator with political roots in the defunct Christian Democrats, is a former law professor at the University of Naples. When he succeeded Professor Berlinguer in October, many felt he might lack his predecessor's reformist zeal.

But his charges hit the assembled academics like a bombshell.

The Accademia's president, Eduardo Visentini, declared: "One cannot generalise: there are academics, and there are academics."

By law, lecturers must dedicate 350 hours a year to teaching. This includes lecturing, preparation of lectures and talking with individual students. Research is not included. But there are virtually no controls and no effective disciplinary means.

Raffaele Simone, a linguist at Rome's Third University who has become a merciless critic of the Italian university system through his books, articles and interviews, applauded Mr Zecchino's comments.

"I am impressed that a minister who is neither a radical nor a revolutionary should make such drastic and healthy considerations," Professor Simone said. "Academics should work 350 hours, but we all know colleagues who do fewer or nothing. There are no controls because in Italy rectors and heads of faculties or departments are elected, so they never take any unpopular measures. I doubt that it will be easy (for Mr Zecchino) to increase the workload. University professors are past masters at inventing rules and then being the first to ignore them."

If Mr Zecchino tries to put his statements into practice, he will face the power of the academic caste - half of this government's ministers are also academics, as are about a third of Italy's MPs - not to mention a deeply rooted crossover between universities and political parties and between the universities and top jobs in the public sector.

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