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Renaissance man steps in

By Domenico Pacitti

Higher education minister Luigi Berlinguer has launched a three-pronged attack designed to raise standards at Italy's universities and combat what is now being openly referred to as a long-standing "mafia of corruption and baronial tyranny".
His policies of internationalisation, greater university autonomy and US managerial-style quality control are being hailed by some as the first significant step in Italy's biggest post-war revolution in education. But many remain sceptical.
"The push to internationalise provides the opportunity for comparison and co-operation," Berlinguer said. "New rules will provide economic and other incentives for Italian doctorates to be carried out in collaboration with at least one non-Italian university. This means international commissions with professors and students being encouraged to travel and mix with colleagues."
Another initiative under discussion is the simplification of the state exam system so as to enable foreigners to teach in Italy more easily. More autonomy for universities in the administration of funding will mean greater flexibility, and the fact that universities will be free to choose their own courses and exams will also promote greater competition, Mr Berlinguer explains. Decentralisation would enable universities to advertise vacant posts, which has been impossible under the present system.
"The need for a policy of quality assessment stems from the fact that Italy has no tradition of evaluation," he said. "But we set up such a system in the form of a vetting committee. It comprises independent Italian professors who will evaluate the efficiency of universities. Its decisions for the approval of funding will be final."
"The evaluation of research projects will no longer be carried out by groups of professors elected by their peers, but by 'referees' who are unknown to one another. The European Union has supplied us with the names of 2,000 European professors, mostly non-Italian, who may participate in evaluation committees."
There is, however, a strong feeling that such measures are little more than a cosmetic job designed to bolster credibility in Europe, which could even prove to be counter-productive. One professor, who has taught at Harvard, described the minister's attempt to introduce a US-style system in Italy as "frightening and liable to fall victim to the American myth." The absence of efficiency, motivation and work commitment, he said, would prove decisive.
Meanwhile, students are continuing to occupy faculties throughout the country following the announcement late last year of plans for a credits system of evaluation which, they claim, would give professors even more power, encourage favouritism and further devalue their degrees, while autonomy, they say, will simply tilt the balance of corruption from national to local level.

Some feel that Mr Berlinguer would like to do more but is being held back by the rectors' conference, a veritable powerhouse of political and financial interests, which is seeking additional funding of 25 thousand billion lire (almost 10,000 million). Others find it inconceivable that Berlinguer, formerly rector of the University of Siena, could contemplate radical changes and risk destabilising the country as it prepares to enter the European Monetary Union.

Popular disbelief in the idea of an Italian revolution is being expressed in the form of the favourite quote from a celebrated Italian novel: "If we want things to stay as they are, then things are going to have to change." Seen in this light, the reforms could have more to do with the preservation of the baronial status quo of baronial money and power, and with the promotion of image, than with the raising of academic standards.

Indro Montanelli, who at 88 is still one of the most lucid minds in Italy, is seen by many as the greatest living authority on his country's culture. He regards Berlinguer as "capable and well-intentioned, but lacking in the raw material to be able to carry through any real reforms; he lacks the men. To whom do you entrust your good intentions? Students and academics can forget an Italian regeneration through new laws. I am told that England has 6,000 or 7,000 laws; Italy has 200,000. We go on producing laws, which we are past masters at evading."

Inability to make real university reforms, he feels, is part of a national inability to effect transformations: "History shows that Italy always corrupts everything it does in the name of myths and sacred things. You give Italy Jesus Christ and you get the Roman Catholic Church. Everything you give Italy becomes a parody of what you give it. This means there is something in our blood, and that is why an Italian university is destined to remain a contradiction in terms for the foreseeable future."

The concepts of social and moral conscience Montanelli sees as alien to Italians, which is why professors have no scruples about axing deserving candidates for university posts. Foreigners, he says, are either sucked into the system or are forced to live as outcasts.

"For centuries our universities have been run by criminals in mafioso fashion," he explains. "Blind allegiance and weakness of character have long been the necessary prerequisites for getting on at our universities.

"Ours is a servile race, incapable of self-government, which is looking to Europe for salvation," he adds. "But if our contribution to the rest of Europe is to be to teach them the art of evading the law, then I think it would be best for us to keep out."

Montanelli's alarming picture of a university system deeply rooted within the wider framework of a moral, legal and academic black hole suggests that it might not be a question of whether Italy can get into Europe, but rather of whether Europe can get into Italy.

Note: This article first appeared in The Guardian on February 3 1998.