In February last year, head of Italian University and Research Ministry ( MIUR) Letizia Moratti presented a draft bill to reform Italian universities, especially the academic career structure. MIUR says the reforms will boost research and tackle brain drain by overcoming the limited career opportunities and lack of meritocracy of Italy's traditional university system. By restructuring university degrees, the reforms also aim to give undergraduates a wider choice of courses and improve teaching.

But the bill has faced wide opposition from academics, who believe it will produce more, rather than less, uncertainty for young scientists. The bill is still being debated in the Italian parliament, as well as in Italy's scientific community.

Scientists in Revolt

Scientists have staged more than a hundred protest actions over the last year, including work-to-rules (strict adherence to contract terms which often works in disfavour of the university), boycotts on teaching, and university sit-ins by students and scientists at all levels. These actions have forced the Commission reviewing the bill to incorporate suggestions from the universities, the college of rectors ( Conferenza dei Rettori delle Università Italiane , CRUI), department and faculty heads, postgrad students and postdocs grouped under the Associazione Dottorandi e Dottori di Ricerca Italiani (ADI), the untenured researchers' network ( Rete Nazionale Ricercatori Precari , RNRP), and others. To date, the bill has been subjected to no fewer than 30 review sittings.

The Traditional Italian Academic Career Path

In Italy, the academic-research career path is long. Contract researchers aim to get into the system as ricercatore (literally, researcher), the first tenured position on the Italian academic career ladder. But with an average entry age of 38, according to MIUR statistics, Italian researchers spend a good part of their career without enjoying a secure job, a decent salary, or scientific autonomy. Following the ricercatore, the two next steps on the academic career ladder are the tenured professore associato (literally, associate professor), and professore ordinario (full professor).


Computer science students were occupying the rectorate at "La Sapienza".Credit: Courtesy of Massimo Costantini, student in computer science, " La Sapienza" University in Rome.

All three positions are obtained after a nationwide competition, or concorso, followed by a probation period, but since there is no official timetable for promotion (in contrast to the U.S. and some other countries) careers can simply run aground. The MIUR estimates that 35% of ricercatori still find themselves in this role at 50, and it is not rare for these ricercatori to reach retirement before they reach the next rung on the career ladder. Until reforms in the late 1990s, these concorsi were organised by the Ministry and meant to be held every two years, but long -- and illegal -- time lapses resulted in logjams of frustrated ricercatori and professori associati unable to advance their careers. But even after the 1990s reforms, which allowed individual universities to organise their own competitions twice a year, the system remained frustrating for applicants. Although there were multiple winners, only one would be given an immediate appointment, the others often remaining on hold for years. In the current draft bill, the competition system is being overhauled again, in an attempt to simplify the process, and also remove the shadow of nepotism.

The Latest Propositions, in Brief

At the core of the current draft bill is the very contentious and still-debated intention to eliminate the permanent position of ricercatore, and replace it with the new and untenured aggiunto professorship (literally, adjunct professors). The next career step for the new aggiunto professors would remain gaining a permanent position of professore associato or professore ordinario, through competition. For current ricercatore and postdocs alike, these changes would have a profound impact on their career trajectory.

The draft bill proposes to recategorise all current ricercatori, who represent more than a third of the nation's 57,000 permanent academics, into the role of professore aggregato (literally, aggregate professor) so that they wouldn't lose their permanent status if the bill were to become law. Ricercatori would thus change their official name, but effectively stay on the terms of their existing permanent contracts. This maneuver would be effective only during the elimination stage of the ricercatore position.

What happens next for them isn't clear. There are many open questions about the aggregate -- both in terms of access and progression -- which are still being addressed. A logical development would be that aggregati remain in the system until they can apply through concorso for the position of professore associato or professore ordinario.

In a wish to also support the country's thousands of current postdocs, grant-holders, and others on short-term contracts during this transition phase, the Commission responsible for the reforms has just proposed -- controversially again -- to give them all the position of professore aggregato, too. But while postdocs would not need to go through a competition to become aggregato, unlike the ricercatori the new position would not come with permanent status. What will happen to these new aggregati is part of the ongoing discussion. Indeed, in a statement earlier this week, the academic-run Osservatorio Ricerca , which flags up university issues and promotes debate, pointed out the "incoherence" of the latest version of the bill from the Commission, citing the professore aggregato as the leading example.

The situation may be worse still for the coming generations of scientists: the new law will mean additional periods of short-term contracts as professore aggiunto, until successful application for the higher level positions of professore associato or professore ordinario. But these will remain few and far between, and a long and uncertain career will then follow for young researchers, says Rosy Caniato, professor in biology at Padua University, echoing the concerns of the protesting scientific community. Also on the side of the protestors, MP Alba Sasso adds that the bill "condemns young researchers to uncertainty, which conflicts with quality."

Adding more spice to the debate, the bill would also allow a number of appointments, albeit exceptional, without competition. This does nothing to allay fears of corruption within the academic system, although the bill proposes the institution of a national independent authority for the evaluation of universities and academic staff, as called for by CRUI earlier this year. The new authority would complement the work of the existing National University System Evaluation Committee which falls under the MIUR.

The scientific community is also keen to defend the research role of the new aggiunto professors and cut down the heavy and unwelcome teaching loads of their ricercatori days. In the traditional system, ricercatori carry out teaching by informal agreement and usually after negotiations with the university. But with the new law offering students more courses while reducing the teaching duties of tenured professors, the extra teaching hours seem likely to fall onto the young. One researcher in Rome, who prefers to remain anonymous, fears that the increased teaching load and uncertain career path will "discourage anyone from doing research."

Getting Private

Scientists are also concerned about another move that was passed into law earlier this year: the government's decision to revise the share universities receive from the annual state budget, and offer private universities 7% of the funding previously allocated to public universities. RNRP representatives fear that all these reforms will cut back scientific research within public universities by paring away research funds and increasing teaching duties for the former ricercatore role.

The funding re-allocation comes at a time when many private universities and institutes are being established in response to the government's wish to better prepare the young for employment in today's aggressive job scene. According to Antonello Masia, who is responsible for universities at the MIUR Directorate, these new universities are as valid as their public counterparts, but "aim to position themselves better on the market with regard to certain types of student or scientific niches." The MIUR ministry itself has set $600 million aside for initiatives to revive research in the South, with the creation of 12 public-private research programmes and training laboratories for young researchers.

But scientists fear a negative impact on public universities. The unnamed researcher in Rome warns: "Under the Moratti reform, research is no longer a vital part of public university, so teaching loses quality and is less up-to-date." The outcome, he says, will be that students from a public university will be at a disadvantage when the time comes to compete for employment both nationally and internationally.

And with the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi also urging private industry to put more funding into research during the launch of the new national research plan earlier this year, scientists fear basic research may be reduced still further. Other scientists deplore the past overall funding situation for research, and agree that a lack of investment from private companies has been an aggravating factor.

Some scientists also believe that a greater role in research for industry could be beneficial. With little private funding going into research, currently few institutes or companies offer research posts in Italy. Consequently there is "no research market for postgrads and researchers to find work," says the researcher in Rome. For Lavinia Egidi, a computer scientist at a university in Alessandria near Turin who wrote in a widely-circulated online presentation on behalf of the protesters, the Moratti bill "makes sense in a different context, where research has real alternatives outside academia."

Review the Reform

Many opponents of the reforms are calling for more coherence. Students, academic and other action groups, and universities alike see the government's plans as fragmented, and ask for the reforms to be drawn up in the context of a new economy that will "value research and innovation as essential for competitiveness."

But in this sea of protest, there may be an oasis: the Fondazione Magna Carta , a group of prestigious academics, recently appealed to the universities to work positively with the government by focusing on common ground. "From direct experience we know that the universities have reached a point of no-return," they say, urging cooperation as the only way forward.

Still, as to when the bill might finally become law, " Come vedi, siamo ancora in alto mare [As you see, we are still all at sea]," says the Rector of Trieste University, Domenico Romeo.

Susan Biggin is a science writer in Trieste, Italy.