Shake-up in Italian jobs

July 19, 1996

Universities minister Luigi Berlinguer has launched a package of reforms which should result in the most radical revolution in Italian higher education since the second world war.

The reforms, if ratified by parliament, will strike at the heart of the rigid and heavily centralised system that has conditioned Italian universities to date, demolishing the almost feudal appointments and careers system.

Professor Berlinguer is a former rector of the University of Siena and was until recently head of the rectors' conference. He is a cousin of the late Enrico Berlinguer, who led the old Italian Communist Party in the 1970s and was the man behind Italy's "Eurocommunism".

The key proposals are that each of Italy's 60-odd universities should hold its own competitive exams to fill jobs. This means, in practice, that universities will be able to choose which lecturers they employ.

At present all posts are assigned through centralised, national exams, which make it easy for academic baroni sitting on the commissions to share out the available jobs among their proteges, offspring and spouses.

The new laws would also allow universities to stipulate private contracts with lecturers and researchers independently of the current national contracts which regulate salaries for academics. Thus, for the same job, a university could choose to pay a modest salary to an unknown young researcher or lecturer, or a high one to a person of particular prestige.

Professor Berlinguer's bill has the firm approval of the new centre-left government and it is expected to have wide support in parliament. A spokesman for the minister said he hoped the bill would be approved "in a matter of weeks".

If the bill is passed it will open Italian universities up to foreign academics. At the moment a few already work in Italian universities, but they are invariably specialists in Italian, history, and history of art.

Cesare De Seta, history of art professor at Naples University and a commentator on higher education for the Corriere Della Sera, said: "An Italian university that needs, say, an engineer, will no longer have to take what the ministry in Rome sends them. They'll be able to set up their own commission which can decide between candidates from Italy, Germany, France, and so on. And we should remember that in Italy academics can teach until they are 72 or 75."

Under the new legislation candidates must have a kind of basic seal of approval from the university ministry. But this would be given on the basis of experience and publications.

The reforms will not necessarily stamp out the habit of assigning jobs to friends of the academics on the commissions. But it will, essentially, bring home to the university that employs the academic in question the responsibility of giving him or her the job.

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