man steps in
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
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
"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.