NAPLES - Italian academics last week rallied outside Italy's higher education ministry in Rome to show their disapproval of the government's plans to eliminate tenure and increase teaching loads. The rally was the latest in a series of protests against a reform plan the government says would provide much-needed flexibility but which faculty members fear could drive away the country's best young brains.

"This has shown that all the people at all the universities are united," says Piero Tosi, rector of the University of Siena and president of Italy's Conference of Rectors of Italian Universities (CRUI), which views the reforms as an intolerable roadblock to those entering the profession.

In January, Letizia Moratti, Italy's education and research minister, unveiled a draft law that would apply to the majority of the country's 50,000 researchers and professors at its 70 universities. It would replace the current tenured research track with a series of fixed-year contracts at each step along the academic ladder, regular evaluations, and a national qualifying exam. The reforms address widespread claims that the current system is corrupt, with rigged appointments, widespread nepotism, and mismanagement of public resources. These factors, many believe, have fueled a brain drain of the country's best young academic talent.

Although many university professors admit that some of these accusations are well founded, they say the proposed reforms would exacerbate the brain drain by creating intolerable roadblocks to entering the profession. The entire process of winning a tenured slot could take as long as 29 years, scoffs Flaminia Saccà of the University of Cassino, who handles research policies for the Democrats of the Left, the main opposition party in Italy. In addition, says Tosi, the reforms do not address the pressing need to improve evaluation of teaching and research efforts on an individual basis. Academics are also upset by the government's push to double their teaching load, now typically two or three courses a year, and by the government's failure to deliver promised funding increases for research.

The government, which has a solid majority in Parliament, is expected to pass the measures next month, although there could be amendments. Tosi says government officials have agreed to discuss the proposals before the vote, and more protests are planned in order to keep the issue before the public.

Alexander Hellemans is a writer in Naples, Italy.

Reposted with permission from Science News, 19 November 2004

Alexander Hellemans is a freelance science writer in Antwerp, Belgium.