Friday, November 14, 2008

Italian Academics On Strike Today

As I write, many Italian academics and university students are gathered in Rome to protest against the cuts to the Italian university system proposed by the Italian government. (The estimate is that 100,000 people will take part in the protest, despite the rainy weather.) See, e.g., here and here for accounts of the developments leading to the strike in English. A live report (in Italian) can be found here. (The protesters have been quite creative, as the banner on this photo indicates. The text on the banner can roughly be translated thus: "Berlusconi, research is the only reason why you still have hair." :-))

I wish my colleagues in Italy the best of luck in their protests. It is high time that Italian governments of all denominations understand that cutting on education and research is the surest recipe for offering a bleak future to my country.

However, I often feel that Italian academia has done itself no favours by contributing to the creation of a system that is highly self-referential and insular. (Italy imports very few students, researchers and lecturers from abroad, and the word "abroad" can often truthfully be interpreted as meaning "coming from a different institution.") The average Italian seems to believe that Italian academia is tainted by scandals, nepotism, the so-called "baronie", and that Italian academics are lazy people who only collect their salaries while producing bad teaching and little or no research. They are not aware of the existence of a large community of highly dedicated, motivated and capable academics who sweat blood to reach peaks of excellence within a system that works against them, rather than for them, and with low salaries. Excellence is often not nurtured in my home country, alas.

It is time for decisive action, I feel. Italian academia needs to regain the trust of the Italian people and give hope to the many young Italian researchers who see no future for them in science. Get independent panels of top-class, expert international evaluators to evaluate all the departments and universities in Italy both in teaching and research. The result of such an evaluation should be used to allocate a sizable share, say 30-40%, of the funding to the departments and universities. Only then, I believe, we will see scientific merit taking centre stage in the evaluation of applicants for positions and a leaner hiring system that will offer Italy's young scientists regular job opportunities.

Of course, the evaluation should be repeated at regular intervals.

Addendum: People interested in assessments might find it worthwhile to read the document
Education at a Glance 2008 OECD Briefing Note For Italy.

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