Situations vacant

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    Italy's universities should be free to hire who they want — and should be accountable for the result.

    It took violent street demonstrations to force the Italian government to backtrack on its proposal to enact — hot on the heels of a hefty budget cut — a major reform of the nation's universities through decree. Last week, education and research minister Mariastella Gelmini agreed instead to put her planned reform through normal legislative procedures, which, unlike a decree, will involve parliamentary debates and, hopefully, consultation with the universities.

    But on 6 November, Gelmini rushed through part of the reform in a decree anyway. With a round of concorsi — the national competitions to select academic staff — due to start within days, Gelmini introduced a relatively minor change in the procedures of the committees that select the staff. The not-so-minor result is that those concorsi, for 1,800 professorships, will be delayed by at least three months. And if the change is challenged in court, as it may well be, the delay could stretch beyond a year — at a time when Italian universities have already been unable to recruit new professors for more than four years.

    The cumbersome concorso system does not need such tinkering, it needs to be abandoned. Imagine if the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge had to tell Washington whenever it had an vacancy; then wait for the administration to collate enough empty posts nationwide to warrant opening a competition; and then allow academics from all universities to elect a national, discipline-related committee to choose the candidate — a committee on which only one MIT representative could sit.

    Such centralized recruitment has been a feature of Italian universities for the best part of a century. It wasn't until the 1990s that universities gained sufficient control of their budgets to decide how many professors they wanted to recruit, even if they couldn't choose the successful candidates. The government refuses to grant them that last authority partly because politicians fear that, left to themselves, some universities would appoint professors on the basis of their local political and personal connections rather than their scientific merit. There is good reason for this worry: it happens even within the concorso system.

    Nonetheless, Italy's universities should be allowed to recruit whomever and however they want — with the all-important proviso that they also be evaluated on their academic performance. If the best-performing universities received more state support, and the underperformers received less, the incentive to play politics when hiring would plummet.

    Italy's previous, centre-left government paved the way for such a system just before it fell in April, when it passed a law to create ANVUR, an agency to evaluate university and academic performance. Gelmini simply needs to complete the establishment of ANVUR, get it working and put an end to the concorso system. Her predecessor had recognized that it would take a while to establish the new institution and so had set in motion the current, now frozen, round of concorsi to allow university life to go on. Gelmini was wrong to interfere with it.

    A level of reform is clearly needed. Because Italian universities don't have to take responsibility for any recruitment decisions, some have become lax, bloated and lazy. But reforms need to be done with a strong, knowledgeable and clever hand — something that Gelmini has so far failed to provide.

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    Situations vacant. Nature 456, 142 (2008) doi:10.1038/456142a

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