Minerva's statue in the middle of La Sapienza, Rome's main university, is dressed in a black gown. Her mourning garb is the work of Italian researchers lamenting the death of knowledge. Their protests are directed against the latest university reform plan, proposed by Letizia Moratti, the university and research minister, at the end of January. The guidelines on the legal status of university professors are expected to be approved by Parliament in the near future.

Few would deny that Italian universities are in need of reform, least of all young researchers. The trend, over the past decade, has been to favour the promotion of associate professors to full professorships, over bringing fresh brains in at the bottom of an increasingly geriatric structure. Last year, for example, saw the creation of 5218 new full professors versus just 1344 jobs for researchers. The result is a paradoxically top-heavy pyramid. As it stands, however, the reform will, if anything, make insecure young researchers' lives even more uncertain.

Meritocracy, but no new money to pay for it

Under the new scheme, new PhDs will be offered a 5-year contract, renewable for another 5 years. After this 10-year period, they will be able to compete for professorships, the winners ending up on a national list from which each university will be able to choose the most suitable candidate. Newly appointed professors will then be offered a 3-year contract, renewable for only another 3 years. At the end of all this, it will be up to the individual universities to decide whether to offer the professor a permanent job.

On the face of it, it looks like an attempt to bring in a more meritocratic system, akin to the U.S. tenure track. But there are problems. For a start, no new money has been promised, and there is concern that the elusive permanent position will never materialise, since it will always be cheaper to hire someone younger.

According to official sources from the ministry, "the reform will give greater freedom and flexibility to universities with the introduction of the principle of careful evaluation and selection of the teaching body. A single national selection with only one winner will put a stop to mechanisms which to date have favoured local appointments."

In fact, local appointments were encouraged by the decentralisation of the national system of concorsi just 6 years ago by the previous government. This move, too, was supposed to give more freedom to the universities and speed up the recruitment process. The 'new' national exam--designed to introduce national lists of first- and second-band lecturers for particular scientific sectors--looks very much like the old system by another name.

"Moratti's reform appears to be an improvised and confused plan with an eye to the past," attacks Flaminia Saccà, sociologist and member of the opposition party. According to the reform plan, a national exam will be held every 2 years. But "who is going to believe this?" asks Anatole Pierre Fuksas, a researcher at La Sapienza. He has good reason to be cynical; young Italians are used to waiting for years for a concorso to be organised, while professors fight among themselves to win the new appointment for their department.

"This plan might have lethal consequences for the Italian universities," asserts Saccà. Although Moratti claims the plan will bring Italy into line with the rest of Europe, by making its system more flexible, Saccà worries that the result will be greater social and economic insecurity for researchers. On one hand, it "will worsen the well-known phenomenon of patronage," because if you want to be sure that after 5+5 and 3+3 years you'll get a permanent position you'll do everything to please your boss, she points out. And on the other, with no new money in the system it "will provoke a massive evacuation from universities. Who is going to do research almost for free?" The salary for researchers looks set to remain at just ?1130 a month.

Worse, given the existing saturation at the top of the research system, the fear is that under the new scheme researchers will reach the age of 40 with no contract or further opportunities. The prevailing feeling among the researchers that Next Wave spoke to is that, if the law is approved, the next 10 years will see the university world thrown into mediocrity, populated by demotivated people facing a constant struggle for survival.

After-hours job and buffered costs

Or perhaps surviving by other means--under the reform proposals the distinction between "full time" and "fixed term" will be eliminated, so that university staff will have the possibility of carrying out other paid activities. Many consider this a major threat to the universities "that will risk becoming an after-hours job for professionals," highlights Enrico Dacleva, rector of the University of Milan.

The only mention of any boost for the universities' slim budget in Moratti's reform is a potential new injection of money from private companies and foundations--something very far away from the Italian tradition.

"It is impossible to reform without money," says Dacleva, and without action to bring in younger researchers. "Indeed, I would start from increasing the salary of doctorate students," he states.

"[The government considers] universities as a problem whose costs need to be buffered, instead of a key element of the cultural and economic development of a modern country," comments Amalia Bosia, an associate professor at the University of Turin. "We need a new and fresh generation of researchers, able to grow and manage the universities independently. To achieve this goal, we must get rid of the old generation, through a serious process of evaluation and selection, applying what Mark Anthony said before the dead body of Caesar: I came to bury him, not to praise him."

But despite no shortage of such radical voices, Moratti's proposal looks set to succeed for lack of a credible alternative. Neither the academic world nor the opposition parties have yet put forward a solid counter-scheme.