Politics sidelines row over tenure

April 2, 2004

Italian government plans to curb academics' job security and open up half of posts to non-academic "experts" may be shelved as politicians concentrate on May's European elections and the run-up to general elections in 2005.

The reform of the "legal status" of academics, aimed at increased competition, flexibility and productivity, is in danger of being bogged down in parliamentary committee debate and fruitless discussions between academics, unions, the Rectors' Conference and the education ministry while protests continue.

The reform was announced in late 2003 by Letizia Moratti, the education minister, as a fait accompli that required only approval by parliament.

Lifelong job security for researchers and associate professors would be abolished, with tenure reserved for full professors.

Academics and unions protested and rectors complained that a reform was not possible while funding was being cut rather than increased. Academics staged demonstrations and strikes, denouncing the reform as an attack on their independence and freedom by making hiring and firing possible.

Ms Moratti conceded the possibility of discussions over some aspects, but virtually no progress has been made. The protests continue in universities, with the next national strike day set for April .

The academics' motives have been questioned by Angelo Panebianco, professor of political science at Bologna University and one of Italy's most renowned political commentators. In the Corriere Della Sera newspaper, he suggests that they are largely selfish.

He writes: "Uninterested by the real reasons behind the decline of the university system, they protest against their jobs becoming - in their eyes - more precarious. They are against a reform that aims to introduce contracts rather than a job for life from the first stages of an academic career."

Raffaele Simone, professor of linguistics at the Roma Tre University and a long-time critic of the university system, said: "Academics are wrong to protest over contracts for researchers. A job as a researcher cannot be permanent, but should be renewed on the basis of competence and performance. But at higher career levels it would be a mistake to replace career academics with 'experts' and 'professionals', people who have no roots in the university and are uninvolved in research."

The debate may prove to be a means to halt any kind of reform. With thousands of people with lifelong positions in the academic establishment, many of whom have excellent political connections, even a government with a strong majority in parliament will have difficulty in making significant reforms.

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