Education International
Education International

The retreat of the government from Higher Education: the Italian case

published 13 November 2012 updated 10 December 2012

In the recent OECD report, Education at Glance 2012, a number of indicators clearly show the critical state of education in Italy. This country invests less than two per cent of its GDP in higher education and research, its graduate numbers are falling, as is the number of its researchers and staff. In almost all of the OECD indicators, Italy ranks below the OECD average and the future outlooks are not positive.

Retreat from quality

Italy seems to have abandoned any aspiration at maintaining a strong and qualified public system of higher education and research. The first signs of this retreat from a strong commitment in its public system of universities can be noted in the second Berlusconi government, under Education Minister Letizia Moratti.

In 2004, she passed a reform that, despite all of its provisions being applied incorrectly in the following years, affirmed the principles that the position of senior researcher should only be a temporary position. This made the positions of teachers and researchers more precarious and instituted a process whereby the universities had to be governed according to managerial principles.

Campaign against public universities

In 2009, Silvio Berlusconi’s third government launched a violent press campaign against public universities, describing them as expensive, inefficient, corrupt, and in need of a urgent reform.

The process of reforming the country needed to wipe out the “barons” and their pupils from institution that were still under the “corrupting influences” of the 1968 generation, according to the government.

By amplifying real problems of corruption and familism, and contesting data showing how the Italian system of research and teaching was comparatively of a higher quality than other OECD countries, the government turned public opinion against university professors describing them as ideologically oriented, conservative, and all taken in by practices of academic ‘machiavellianism’.

Funding cut

Soon after that campaign, the government approved a huge cut in funding (down 20 per cent in three years) and blocked salaries and drastically reduced staff numbers under the necessity of a spending review that aimed “to better finance the best”.

In fact, the main purpose of Berlusconi’s government was to reduce – by 40 per cent – the human and financial resources in the public university system.The number of students, courses, and administrative staff in universities started to decrease, while student fees, precarious work and inefficiencies increased.

In fact, in the next three years, the strong limits on staff numbers will see a dramatic reduction in teaching and research staff due to the large number of estimated retirements.

In 2008, there were almost 63,000 full-time researchers and professors in Italy’s 90 universities. Today, that number has decreased to 55,000 and, due to retirements and the limits in turnover, it is going to fall to fewer than 50,000 in a couple of years’ time.

Meanwhile, the number of precarious researcher and teacher positions has reached almost 40,000, even if that number is likely to reduce soon due to cuts in funds, grants, and career opportunities.

New university model

The reason for this “retreat” in the higher education and research sector is not merely linked to the necessity to decrease Italy’s public debt. It is also because Italy’s public higher education system was deemed to be oversized in terms of an economy comprising mainly smaller firms not requiring high numbers of graduates.

The true aim was to shape a smaller system of public universities, with some of them labelled as ‘excellent according to international standards’, and most of them reshaped as teaching university colleges.

In this smaller system, a wider role would be played by private actors, both in offering services for the public universities and in building a parallel educational market comprising private and online universities.

Union activityMoreover, the Italian government was also convinced that universities had too much autonomy and independence from the government, both in their governance and in their financial management.

That is why, soon after the cuts, and despite widespread student and researcher protests, Berlusconi’s government passed a law reforming university governance according to the principles of managerial administration. This significantly reduced the role played by elected bureau and senates.

A lengthy and determined struggle was engaged by students, researchers and professors’ unions, with important roles played by the Rete29Aprile network of researchers and by Associate professors association CoNPAss.

The Flc Cgil also launched several campaigns, called a number of successful strikes, and organised national demonstrations that were well supported. Despite these actions, on 14 December, 2010, the law was passed in a parliament “besieged” by students and workers. The huge demonstration ended with violent clashes and repressions.

The bureaucratic, fragmented and confused architecture of the law required a large number (more than 50) of further regulations that have paralysed the work of universities. At present, a significant number of universities have not yet been issued and the process of reshaping the governance and organisation in the universities is still ongoing.

In addition, the new budgetary discipline of universities placed stronger limits on departmental financial autonomy and established a maximum threshold – 20 per cent of retirements - in the turnover of personnel.

No new dawn

Soon after the resignation of Berlusconi’s government in 2012, the hopes for a change in attitude towards universities faltered. The new Education Minister, Francesco Profumo, former Director of CNR (Centro Nazionale delle Ricerche) and Dean of the “Politecnico” University of Turin, clarified his intentions to carry through Berlusconi's reforms. Indeed, things have worsened in recent months.

A throughout process of evaluation of research structures carried out by the new Italian agency (ANVUR) for evaluation and quality assurance has been, in fact, poorly managed. Despite that, the results of this biased process will be used to allocate a relevant share of the actual ministerial budget for universities according to the rankings of the structures.

Flaws in evaluation systemThe same agency was also entitled to draft the processes of national scientific qualification for researchers and professors who aspired to compete for a superior position in their career.

A strict quantitative method of evaluation of scientific productivity, based on uncertain data collecting and highly disputable indicators, has placed Italian researchers in the difficult position of allowing a deficient system of research evaluation in order to have (few) opportunities to enhance their career.

Or they could call for a complete halt to the process with the certainty of having their career path definitively blocked in the next years.

Moreover, this evaluation process, by referring to a quantitative analysis of scientific production and a biased idea of meritocracy, is revealing itself as an attempt to justify the narrow-minded approach of investing only in applied science and technology.

This is likely to weaken Italian research for decades to come as far as applied researches, in the long run, cannot subsist without a strong base and curiosity driven research. All the faults and contradictions of this process are constantly monitored and discussed by the online review ROARS (Return On Academic Research),which is playing a decisive role in opposing the Anvur Agency and its policies.

Lastly, in the last months, the new government accomplished the reform of the student welfare system. This was brought about through the reduction of public financing, the raising of student fees, and the introduction a new model of student loans.

Thus, the new minister is pursuing the same approach as his predecessor. He is undermining the public university system to open up the “educational market” to private actors. This will create a dual university system, with a greater number of low-profile teaching universities and a restricted core of excellent research universities.

Student fees will be increased and public grants substituted with a system of loans. Workers’ rights will be undermined as professional services are outsourced and precarious contracts in research, teaching, and administration introduced.

Wider context

Indeed, when placed in the current European and world contexts, what is happening in Italy seems to be part of a wider project to shape the international space of research according to neo-liberal principles of market economy.

It is not simply the concept of reducing public expenditure due to an increasing public deficit that sustains these policies, it is rather a project of reshaping of the processes of production and circulation of knowledge according to the rules and principles of the market economy.

The recent European financial crisis has shown how the forces behind this approach cannot be interpreted in a narrow national context. This is why we should organise our dissent at an European level. We need to oppose concrete proposals and highlight a different perspective on how higher education and research can contribute to social and economic development and to active, participative, civic democracy.

By Alessandro Arienzo (FLC-CGIL, Italy)