The coming year should see radical changes for Italy's state university system. Luigi Berlinguer, minister for schools, universities and scientific research since April, has warned that the system is in a state of "emergency" and is pushing a series of reforms which should shake it to its foundations.
"We are dealing with a university system in which only a third of the students ever get a degree," said Professor Berlinguer in an interview with The THES. "Consequently it is enormously wasteful of resources, not to mention the terrible cost in human failure for thousands and thousands of young people who crowd the universities amd then fail to graduate."
He said: "We are working on three main fronts: a reform of the mechanism for assigning academic posts, an increase in the academic and economic autonomy of each university, and a breaking up of a few university behemoths, like Rome, into smaller and more efficient units."
Professor Berlinguer's recipe sounds simple and straightforward but it will have to overcome the natural resistance to change of a heavily centralised university ministry and of a caste of academics, the professori, who until now have enjoyed unparalleled freedom, good pay, cast-iron job security, and the opportunity to teach and carry out research as little or as much as they liked.
The minister, a cousin of Enrico Berlinguer of the old Italian Communist Party, is a former rector of Siena University and head of the Italian Rectors' Conference. He is the fourth university minister in as many years. All his predecessors have called for radical reforms, but lacked the time, power or political inclination to implement them.
A reform of the ministry of universities and scientific research is already under way in the face of resistance. Professor Berlinguer feels confident that the new regime of autonomy, when it is in full swing, will weed out the non-productive academics automatically.
"Italy's academic corps includes two types of people," said Professor Berlinguer, "those who really believe in their role and do their best, and those who use their academic title as a platform for other professional activities. The serious teachers and researchers are crushed by this situation. Serious academics who should also be doing research are weighed down with an excessive teaching load.
"The law does not allow us to sack a professor who lectures twice a year and spends the rest of his time taking care of his own business. But I am convinced that when each university has total autonomy, and therefore full responsibility for its teaching, its research and its budget and choice of academics, the non-producers will be gradually weeded out. In the meantime, I hope to introduce legislation that will make it possible to reward and penalise academics on the economic level."
Legislation now working its way through parliament and the senate, establishes that each university will choose its academics, rather than having them assigned by the ministry. Each university will be responsible for its own productivity, academic standards and curricula, and will compete for students and funds.
"I am trying to create a culture of academic management," said Professor Berlinguer. "Too many academics take the attitude that they teach what and how they like and if their students succeed, fine. If they don't, too bad. At the moment our universities do not produce enough graduates to satisfy the job market in a healthy economic phase."
Professor Berlinguer's war on the mega-universities is part of his battle against the staggering 70 per cent drop-out rate. Rome's La Sapienza has about 200,000 students and Milan and Naples are not far behind. Berlinguer points out that an existing law forbids universities of more than 40,000 students, and he aims to break the big universities up into smaller units.
Reactions from La Sapienza, his primary target, have been negative. Rector Giorgio Tecce and the academic council invoked a Papal Bull of 1303 which bestowed on La Sapienza unity and autonomy. They have since agreed to discuss Professor Berlinguer's proposal.