Wednesday, 11 February 2009

A Young Wave Will Sweep You Away

(Photo: Italian schools on strike, by Giampaolo Squarcina)

On January 8th, 2009, the Camera dei Deputati passed a bill reforming University introduced by the Minister of Education Ms Mariastella Gelmini (repubblica.it). The Senate had ratified the same government decree on November 29th, 2008 (lastampa.it), while the general reform of Italian school had been previously announced through the Decree 133 on August 6th (universinet.it, "Capo V - Istruzione e Ricerca") and the Decree 137 on September 1st (parlamento.it).

According to the Government, these are the main purposes of the reform (repubblica.it):

  • cutting down waste of money. Universities spending more than 90% of their budget in wages will not be able to hire new staff. More than 500 mln euros will be granted to universities assuring the best courses, research, quality, effectiveness and efficiency. These indexes will be assessed by two national committees, CNVSU (1) and CIVR (2);
  • making competitive examinations more transparent. New professors, lecturers and researchers will be selected by commissions of regular professors picked at random on a national list;
  • punishing loafers and idlers. Professors will be included in the previous list only if they publish anything within 2011. Otherwise, their wage increases according to seniority will be reduced to a half;
  • recruiting young researchers. Since many regular professors are approaching the retiring age, universities will be able to replace half of them by hiring about 4,000 new researchers;
  • advantaging meritorious students. 190 mln euros will be spent to grant more scholarships and halls of residence for university students.

Has this bill any chance to change and improve Italian University? Since no reform can be judged out of its context, it is better to check how things really are.
First: Italy spends on secondary school less than France, the UK and Germany. According to Eurostat, Italy expenditure for secondary school – including university – is quite low. Spending 2.12% of its GDP on it, Italy is ranked 17th within the EU27. Denmark stands 1st in this ranking with 3.11% of its GDP devoted to secondary school, while Italy is behind the main Western European countries: France is 6th with 2.67%, the UK is 11th with 2.47% and Germany is 14th with 2.27% (3).
Second: many Italian University professors were hired hurriedly and without assessment. Mr Enrico Santarelli explains how on 1980 – as a consequence of the 1973 Malfatti decree – the Italian University hurriedly turned into professors a legion of lecturers, in the aim of facing a high demand determined by the liberalization of education following the protests of 1968. Those new professors, not summited to any kind of assessment, soon became a powerful and hyperprotected caste. Since most of them will retire by 2015, the risk is to make the same mistake again, replacing these old professors with a half legion of inadequate and far less paid researchers. Between 1998 and 2007, while students increased in number only by 5.48%, professors increased in number by 24.1%. As a consquence, there is actually no need to buy the whole stock now: the system had better to hire new researchers gradually and granting them enough money so that the best ones can come forward (lavoce.info).
Third: Italian University professors are older than their European collegues. Mr Giuseppe Caputo reports that 55% of Italian University professors is over 50. In the main Western European countries this index is significantly lower: 38.9% in France, 29.8% in the UK, 29.6% in Spain and 29.2% in Germany. Italian professors retire at 72 instead of 65: during the last seven years of his career an Italian university professor costs about 840,000 euros, the same amount of money spent to pay a researcher for twenty-eight years (lavoce.info).
Fourth: indipendence and competition between Italian Univerisities is low. Even those who partially agree with the reform, such as Mr Gianni Toniolo, explain that the system is too static to benefit from the change. According to them, universities should be completely free to manage their didactics, expenses, organization and human resources. The system, indeed, would benefit more from competition amongst different universities than from homogenous national rules (4).
In short, compared to their European counterparts, Italian universities are relatively poor and spend a lot to pay old professors hired without assessment, while indipendence and competition between universities as well as between professors is low.
In spite of the need for a change, though, the reform has actually succeeded – as Mr Serge Quadruppani explains – in gathering the opposition of most students, researchers and university rectors, whether they support a competitive system or they do not (5).
Here is the impressive track record of the protests. Students, parents and teacher of primary and secondary school move first: they occupy several school buildings in September, in order to express their opposition to the general reform of school proposed by the Government in late August (corriere.it). On October 7th, in Rome, La Sapienza University is occupied (precariispra.blogspot.com). Two days later, the University of Pisa follows (globalproject.info). On October 15th, 1000 protesters occupy Termini Railway Station in Rome (repubblica.it). Following the general strike of the autonomous trade unions, on October 17th (globalproject.info), the Universities of Boulogne, Milan, Turin, Naples, Padua and Palermo are occupied (repubblica.it, ilgiornale.it, mattinopadova.gelocal.it and siciliainformazioni.com). The movement opposing the reform takes the name "Onda anomala" (Anomalous Wave).
The verbal reaction of the government is firm and uncompromising. On October 22nd, the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declares: “We will not permit that schools and universities are occupied. [...] This is a violence. I will summon Mr Maroni [the Minister of the Interior] to give him instructions on how the police has to take action. The State has to affirm its role, granting the rights of students who want to have access to their classes.” (6).
On October 24th, the former President of the Republic Francesco Cossiga explains: “Mr Maroni should do what I did when I was the Minister of the Interior. [...] Letting [university students] do. Withdrawing the police from streets and universities, and making provokers of no scruples to infiltrate the movement and let the protesters ravaging shops, setting cars to fire and devastate the towns. [...] Afterwards, backed by popular agreement, the sound of sirens and ambulances should overhang the sound of police's and carabineers' cars.” (7).
As Ms Gaia Benzi wrote on Micromega, the Center Left reaction to the protests is simple: making oral violence normal, so that the violence of laws can be then seen as normal (micromega.it).
On October 29th, during a demostration in Rome, the police lets a group of fascists join Piazza Navona in a van jammed with sticks: some 13-year-old students are kicked, while their teachers and parents try to protect them (repubblica.it). On November 15th and 16th, following a huge demonstration, the movement holds a general assembly and writes down many texts proposing a bottom up reform of Italian University (stop133.wordpress.com). In the meantime, the Onda has encouraged CGIL, the main Italian trade union, to set up a general strike on December 12th (repubblica.it). In the meantime, the mobilization for the strike has urged the Ministrer for Education, Ms Mariastella Gelmini, to lighten the reform of primary school and to put forward to 2010 the reform of secondary school (repubblica.it).
Why so many protests? What better than cutting down waste of money, making competitive examinations more transparent, punishing loafers and idlers, recruiting young researchers, and advantaging meritorious students?
If you want to find the solution to the problem, you should focus on the two more disadavantaged social categories involved: students and researchers, which means the young generations. As well as in the Middle Age and in 1968, those who are students today will be potential professors tomorrow. What do they think of the reform?
According to the movement, whose main slogan is indeed "We’re not likely to pay for your crisis", the key issues on the field are money and justice. Students and researchers are afraid that the reform will make Italian University even more unequal and unfair than it is today.
Every Italian student knows that he will join any profession only if his parents or someone within his family already did it in the past. Provived that there are always some honourable exceptions, in Italy architects, lawyers, doctors, chartered accountants, journalists, notarists and so forth – as well as university professors – are members of castes chosen by a top-down co-optation process. Every young Italian knows that his university degree will make him earn from 500 to 1000 euros a month for most of his life, provived that he is so lucky to pass through several stages and precarious works. Otherwise, he will have to shift to some less skilled and less interesting job.
All the more reason, you pay University taxes according to your parents’income. As a rule in this country, if your parents are workers or law-abiding professionals you will pay all your taxes. Otherwise, if your parents belong to the club of Italian tax dodgers – whose remarkable score in tax evasion is about 200 billion euros a year – you will pay less at the local public university or you will be able to pay something more and join a prestigious public or private university in Rome, or Milan.
The situation is not different for researchers. Since you are not likely to become a university assistant or professor, unless your father’s friends are professors too, you will not afford to be a researcher for twenty or thirty years at 800 euros per month, living in a continuous struggle to make ends meet. As a consequence, if you are really determined and you can afford it, you will rather leave the country and try to pave your way abroad. Otherwise, you will look for a job on the private or public sector, turning yourself into a spare-time intellectual.
The result is simple: an unfair and unequal university system makes often the worst students to become professors. The disease which is suffocating the country is indeed the same in education, justice, politics and business.
That is why more and more students and researchers are opposing the reform. They know that whatever change will be done, the economic basis of their exclusion will not change. According to this pattern, while French students protest to defend their future and to protect an education system which is fair, equal and effective (6), Italian students protest for the same reasons of Greek students (7): they know that their future has been stolen by the older generations and that their school will condemn them to poorness.
Moreover, if this unequal system is associated with different conditions and more competition between universities – as liberal economists agreeably claim – but without the warrenty of the same conditions and rights of access to every student, the result will be worst than the present condition: there will be nothing but poor public universities for unskilled workers and rich private universities for a few overpaid professionals. That is why, on my opininion, the system has to be liberalized from the bottom, not from the top. The only way to make the Italian University system more competitive is by making students really free to choose their future.
You will not be able to reform University, unless you reform and fully liberalize professions first. Professional registers should be abolished and confined to the matter of ethics and deontology. Succession taxes should be reintroduced and hardly enforced.
Any reform should focus more on students than on professors. The Governement should grant every student the same opportunities to study and, as a consequence, much more money should be spent for university students. If they are granted a monthly wage as it is in many European countries - provived that they really study and pass every exam - students are indeed free to move and choose the best universities, sharing their education experience with part time jobs and useful professional practice. Every student should be then free to choose the town where he wants to study and the courses he would like to attend. Best universities can make their exams very hard to pass if they want to select the best students, so they do not need so many entry barriers as they impose today.
By all means, provided that university professors should retire at 65 instead of 72, those who retire should not be immediately replaced. New researchers and professors should be selected gradually and indipendently by each University, according to a severe assessment process and granting them a wage wide enough to compete on the European work market.
Since the University reform is far from being a success, we must anyway hope that protests against it will give birth to a new generation of leaders who will be able to replace and heal the political cancer which is actually killing the country.
Le generazioni successive hanno finora conosciuto, specie nel nostro paese, un destino ben diverso rispetto a quella che ha vissuto il ’68. Quella venne alla maturità in modo pubblico e anche un po’ chiassoso, queste sono giunte e stanno giungendo all’età adulta nel silenzio e nel relativo disinteresse diffuso. Quella crebbe in una fase di sviluppo storicamente irripetibile e finiti gli anni del movimento si trovò saldamente insediata, se non proprio ai posti di comando quanto meno in buone posizioni sul mercato del lavoro specie intellettuale. Queste hanno vissuto decenni di occasioni ridotte e di aspettative limitate, trovandosi generalmente escluse, in quanto generazioni se non in quanto singoli individui, da tutte le posizioni significative nellle istituzioni, specialmente in quelle culturali.
[Up to now the following generations have known, especially in our country, a very different destiny from the generation who lived 1968. That generation came to maturity publicly and even a bit noisily; these ones instead have become and are becoming adult through silence and a relatively diffuse indifference. That one grew up during a period of development which can not be historically repeated and, when the years of the protests ended up, found herself steadily installed if not in command at least in good positions on the job market, especially within the intellectual job market. These ones have lived decades of reduced opportunities and scanty expectations, founding themselves generally excluded – as generations if not as individuals – from every significant position within the institutions, especially within the cultural institutions.]
(Peppino Ortoleva, I movimenti del ’68 in Europa e in America, 1998).
__________

(1) CNVSU, Comitato Nazionale di Valutazione del Sistema Universitario Statale.

(2) CIVR, Comitato di Indirizzo per la Valutazione della Ricerca.

(3) If we replace the GDP percentage with the Purchasing Power Standars, which "take into account the general price levels in each country and are the most appropriate unit when comparing expenditure figures between countries", the snapshot is pretty similar. Spending 6,312 PPS on secondary school, Italy is ranked 10th within the EU27. Austria is ranked 1st with 8,296 PPS, France is 4th with 7,519 PPS, the UK is 5th with 6,963 PPS and Germany is 7th with 6,566 PPS (Eurostat, 5% of EU GDP Is Spent by Governments on Education, “Statistics in Focus”, 117/2008, p. 6).

(4) Gianni Toniolo,"Più selezione per i docenti universitari", Il Sole 24 Ore, January 9th 2009.

(5) "En Itaile, l'onde, la vague et la marée", Le monde diplomatique, January 2009.

(6) “Non permetteremo che vengano occupate scuole e università. [...] È una violenza, convoco Maroni per dargli indicazioni su come devono intervenire le forze dell'ordine. Lo Stato deve fare il suo ruolo garantendo il diritto degli studenti che vogliono studiare di entrare nelle classi e nelle aule.” (corriere.it).

(7) “Maroni dovrebbe fare quel che feci io quando ero ministro dell'Interno. [...] Lasciarli fare [gli universitari]. Ritirare le forze di polizia dalle strade e dalle università, infiltrare il movimento con agenti provocatori pronti a tutto, e lasciare che per una decina di giorni i manifestanti devastino i negozi, diano fuoco alle macchine e mettano a ferro e fuoco le città. [...] Dopo di che, forti del consenso popolare, il suono delle sirene delle ambulanze dovrà sovrastare quello delle auto di polizia e carabinieri.” (articolo21.info).

(8) Eddy Khaldi: "La droite privatise le rapport à l'école", L'hebdo des socialistes, January 3rd 2008, pp. 10-13. Interview by Fanny Costes.

(9) Valia Kaimaki, "Aux banques ils donnent de l'argent, aux jeunes ils offrent... des balles", Le monde diplomatique, January 2009, pp. 4-5.