Merit-based funding will ‘raise standard of research universities’

Recently introduced merit-based public funding of higher education could lead to the emergence of a handful of highly competitive research universities in Italy, according to the rector of one of the top technical universities.

The merit-based funding is now worth €910 million (US$1.1 billion), or 13% of government higher education spending.

In the recent 2012 round the Politecnico di Torino (Polytechnic of Turin), one of Italy’s top technical institutions, took the number one spot for merit funding as a proportion of total public funding.

Its rector, Marco Gilli, said the scheme represents a new and positive direction for Italy’s universities as they struggle with cuts to base funding that over the past three years have totalled more than €228 million.

“The scheme is encouraging the emergence of research universities and increasing competition even at a European level as it stimulates researchers to acquire resources,” he told University World News.

He hoped it would assist in increasing Italy’s modest world rankings and that public resources would be more focused, leading to the emergence of a defined number of quality research universities.

And despite his university’s success, Gilli added: “Although the system rewards the scientific areas above others, I think there are opportunities for all subject areas, including humanities.”

Merit funding system

Merit funding was introduced in 2009 by then education minister Maria Stella Gelmini as part of a significant package of tertiary sector reforms.

Now in its third year, the scheme awards financial resources above and beyond base funding to universities on the basis of teaching and research outcomes.

It is heavily weighted towards rewarding research, with two-thirds allocated on the basis of participation in national research projects, research quality, and the ability to attract European funding grants. The other third is allocated on the basis of teaching and academic results.

How institutions are doing

The Polytechnic of Turin, with 30,000 students, excels in applied and theoretical engineering and architecture, hosting a start-up incubator dedicated to hot-housing new high-tech business ideas, with a strong connection to industry.

It was awarded €26.1 million out of a total €124.8 million, or 20.9% of its total public funding on merit, the highest percentage in the country in the 2012 round.

It is the third year in a row that the institution – headed until recently by current Education Minister Francesco Profumo – has taken the biggest proportion of government funding on merit. This has been gradually increasing over the past three years, up more than four percentage points from 16.6% in 2010.

Even though its base funding has decreased over the same period, the increased merit funding has contributed to a slight increase in its total public funding.

The Turin polytechnic was followed by Politecnico di Milano, also a leader among the country’s technical universities in the applied design, architecture and engineering fields. It was allocated 16.7% of its funding on merit.

While the top two spots went to technical institutions, third place went to the more traditional University of Venice Ca’ Foscari with its focus on economics and humanities. It was awarded 16.3% of funding on merit.

Its rector, Carlo Carraro, said: “To come only after institutions like the two polytechnics is a reason to be even more proud, given they are institutions that attract resources through consultancies and patents that other universities cannot.”

For other institutions, however, the merit scheme is falling far short of compensating for a significant loss of base funding.

Naples university Federico II, for example, gained €43.4 million out of a total €344.4 million, or 12.6% of its funding, on merit this year. Its total public funding has dropped from €361 million in 2010 to €344 million in 2012.

Even the country’s largest university La Sapienza, with 140,000 students, was penalised despite gaining the biggest piece of the merit-based spending.

It was awarded €67.1 million in merit-based funding out of a total €518.8 million. This represents 12.9% of its total funding and an increase over previous years, yet it was not enough to balance base funding cuts, and the institution faces a €6 million decrease in total government funding this year.

The University of Bologna, on the other hand, performed best among Italy’s large-scale institutions. It was awarded €63.7 million out of €390 million on merit, or 16.3% of its total funding, which actually helped to increase its total funding by more than €10 million on the previous year.

Although pleased with the recognition of the university’s performance, University of Bologna Rector Ivano Dionigi was quick to underline the sector’s gloomy financial future.

“The 2012 funding round will allow us to regard with relative serenity next year’s budget when we face [further] cuts of 6.2% to public university funding. If it goes ahead, many institutions will not be able to cope,” he said.

Funding remains a problem

While the merit-based scheme looks set to push research performance to the top of priority lists, Domenico Pantaleo, secretary-general of the country’s principal education union FLC-CGIL (Federazione Lavoratori della Conoscenza), said that the emphasis on merit was not the most pressing funding issue.

“The real problem in this country is that we do not have support for our constitutional right to study. We have seen study grants cut by 93%. For a great percentage of students who win study grants there is simply not the money to fund their studies,” Pantaleo said.

“If we are to adhere to European programmes to increase the number of graduates (we currently have a very low graduate rate of 19%), we need to increase funding that guarantees the right to study,” he said.

The development of a ‘meritocracy’ in any case appears to be high on the university reform agenda. A proposal currently under discussion could see merit-based funding also allocated based on the performance of individual students.