A radical system for the assignment of posts in Italy's 60 state universities is about to become law. It aims to boost efficiency by combating the network of patronage, nepotism and favouritism which marks many appointments made in Italy's centralised state universities.
A bill has been passed by the cabinet and various commissions, and the final details will be discussed in parliament over the next few weeks.
According to university minister Luigi Berlinguer, reform will produce a real revolution.
But many observers fear that his words are empty. Posts for associate professors and professors have been assigned by centralised national commissions made up of senior academics. The outcome has been that many jobs are shared by the commissioners among their proteges, often irrespective of merit.
The three ranks of researcher, associate professor and professor have tenure for life, are free from control and are relatively well-paid. Consequently many academics dedicate little time to their university, preferring to pursue a private career. They are under no pressure to produce if they do not feel like it.
However, under the new rules each university will choose its lecturers from a central register of academics who have been judged competent to teach by a central commission. But academics not called for a certain number of years will lose this status. A university dissatisfied with professors will be free to sack them and send them back to the pool where they will have to make do with temporary jobs until some other university takes them on.
A degree from any Italian university has the same legal value. This is crucial for government jobs, which absorb about half of the country's graduates, for national contracts for the private sector, and for the professions.
Michele Salvati, a former economics professor who is now an MP for the Democratic Party of the Left, the major partner in the ruling centre-left government, said: "If this legal status were abolished each degree would be valued on its real merit and universities would be forced to compete in terms of academic quality and service to students.
"The students would vote with their feet, and universities would be forced to take on good, efficient lecturers to attract students and to give their degrees prestige in the job market."
Raffaele Simone, the Rome linguist and outspoken critic of the existing system, said: "The new rules are a step in the right direction. But if there is no limit to the number of those on the register the sistema mafioso will simply move from the centralised to the local level. We must eliminate the legal value of degrees. But this will involve massive legislative changes well beyond the universities.
"I fear that this reform will mean little if it is not part of a general reform, including a change in the mentality common to many Italian academics."