As Rome burned last week during anti-government riots, many of those present were focusing on the plight of Italy's underfunded and underperforming universities, which face major reform. There is no doubt that reform is needed. The question is whether the government will deliver it correctly.

Islands of excellence exist in Italian universities, particularly in the north of the country. And they survive despite such low levels of government investment that little cash remains for infrastructure or research once salaries have been paid. But malaise is widespread, and money is not the only question. University workforces are riddled with dead wood, a legacy of too little competition for academic posts or research grants. And universities are not penalized if they choose to hire staff on the basis of personal contacts instead of talent.

A controversial new law, expected to be approved this week, attempts to fix these issues. It is imperfect, but if implemented properly, it will give Italy's universities a brighter future. Critical to its implementation, though, is the prompt creation of a long-promised evaluation agency to assess teaching and research performance and link them to university budgets. Also critical is money — just as throwing money at the problem won't solve the malaise on its own, reforms without additional funds won't be effective.

Italians are familiar with fine-sounding reforms that fail to actually change things.

A law to reform universities was drafted in 2007 by the previous, centre-left government, which also proposed setting up an evaluation agency, known as ANVUR (National Agency for the Evaluation of the University and Research System), modelled on France's AERES agency. The current, centre-right government picked up and tweaked that draft. In doing so, it inserted the authority of its powerful finance ministry, which will directly manage some funds, and sign off annual budgets and budget proposals for each university. But the law also introduces some radical changes that could improve things. For example, it brings in mandatory peer review of all public research money, requiring that 30% of individuals who sit on peer-review committees are working abroad. This will help to avert high-profile debacles like the ministry of health's behind-closed-doors allocation in 2007 of a €3-million (US$4-million) grant from its stem-cell research fund to scientists at a private foundation who claimed to be working more ethically than others — and the reversal of that decision following public outcry.

Changes in the system for recruiting staff may also help, but not necessarily. Traditionally, academic staff have been selected by national committees and then allocated to universities to fill relevant vacancies. Incomprehensible to many of those in other countries, where universities choose their own staff, the 'concorsi' system was intended to challenge a tendency to recruit locally, without necessarily choosing the best. But behind-the-scenes dealing among concorsi committees ensured that universities mostly got the candidates they wanted anyway, for good or bad. Extensive tinkering in the past decade or so has not yet found a better balance between quality control at a national level and local university autonomy. In the new system, all candidates who pass a national qualification exam, judged by committees similar to concorsi committees, will join a national list from which a university may at any time select a candidate. The danger here is that less academically suitable people may get on the list, because — as there is no link to a concrete academic position — committees don't bear responsibility for their choices.

Italians are familiar with fine-sounding reforms, such as the attempts to improve the concorsi system, that fail to actually change things. They enjoy quoting Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard, a novel set around the time of Italy's unification in 1861, in which a protagonist observes contemporary politics, and wryly notes how the newly empowered try to 'change everything, so that everything remains the same'. But this law has a strong chance of changing things so that they do become different — and better. A crucial foundation for such success is that the government makes ANVUR happen soon. It was, after all, founded in law in February this year. Now, Italian scientists must see it built in bricks and mortar. The system needs more money, but that money must be linked to performance. Establishing ANVUR would show that Italy has placed its university system on the road to true reform.