ITALY: Drive to stamp out nepotism in universities

The Italian cabinet has ordered the roll-out of a national accreditation scheme for academics to stamp out nepotism. Under the new scheme, commissions of five senior academics appointed in each university will accredit applicants for associate or full professorships on the basis of the quality and quantity of their academic output.

Commissions will be chosen by universities from shortlists of suitably qualified senior academics, which may include non-Italian staff. With the cabinet decree kick-starting the establishment of the system, the aim is to have it up and running by the end of this year.

The criteria for certification will be determined by the country's new university quality agency, the National Agency for the Evaluation of the University System and Research (ANVUR), and the government's national university council (Consiglio Universitario Nazionale - CUN), for each discipline. The accreditation process will open every October for a period of five months and resulting certifications will be valid for no more than four years.

The scheme has been authorised within the sweeping and controversial reforms of the university sector that finally became law late last year. National accreditation for academics is one of the least contested parts of the new legislation, however, and is seen by many as a valid attempt to end Italy's notoriously nepotistic university culture, or what the education minister Mariastella Gelmini has condemned as a regime of "barons, privilege and waste".

Professor Andrea Lenzi, CUN's president, told the daily specialist paper, Il Corriere dell'Università e del Lavoro, that "no institution could go on like this, even less so in research institutes where competition is the daily bread".

Lenzi added: "The new system will allow for the selection of the best candidates, and even the commission members must demonstrate that their qualifications to be a judge are more than appropriate."

However, Professor Paolo Manzini, Vice-president of the Tenured Professors Union (CIPUR), said that although the accreditation scheme was a positive step, it had to be supported by stringent regulation that forced individual institutions to apply it fairly and honestly.

"The problem arises at the local level where each university is responsible for their accreditation process. The scheme must be accompanied by regulation, control and consequences for institutions that don't play by the book," Manzini said. "People must be sure that penalties will apply for not complying fully."

The cabinet has now also appointed the seven advisers who will serve on ANVUR, another key part of the university reform package. It is charged with evaluating universities and research bodies' research performance, employment rates for students, and their ability to attract cooperative partnerships with the private and public sectors.

ANVUR's ratings will be used to determine funding increases for high-performing institutions. A statement from the education ministry says universities that spent their resources well and produced more research would be rewarded.

Two women and five men from mainly scientific and economic backgrounds head up the agency: Sergio Benedetto, Andrea Bonaccorsi, Massimo Castagnaro, Stefano Fantoni, Giuseppe Novelli, Fiorella Kostoris and Luisa Ribolzi. Their mandate will last for a single term of four years.