Can you fill your sandwich with Dante? Some reflections after the Italian universities’ “reform”

By Domenico Fiormonte, University of Roma Tre, 4Humanities International Correspondent

On December 14th, 2010, students from all over Italy filled the streets of major cities protesting – and, in Rome, rioting – against a new University Reform bill, the third in ten years and one that endangers the very existence of one of the largest public higher educational and research systems in the Western world. But the riots on Dec. 14th were not just the expression of the students’ opposition to the ‘reform’ and the associated financial cuts. As elsewhere in the world, their anger had its roots in the immense feeling of insecurity that their generation has been made to suffer, and in the feeling of rebellion created by the inequitable social, economic and political responses of the establishment to the 2008 financial crisis. The most often heard slogan these past few months has been “Noi la crisi non la paghiamo”, or “We will not pay for this crisis”.

The students and other protesters who took to the streets on December 14th were of course accused by the media of violently instigating the clashes with the police. Supposedly the (in)famous ‘black blocks’ were behind it all. I was in the streets of Rome on that day and, of the over 100,000 protesting students I saw with my own eyes, not a single one was a black blocker. But yes, those students were angry, and even more so when they encountered a massive deployment of anti-riot squads bent on preventing them from reaching the square in front of the Italian Parliament. Meanwhile, inside the building, the government was ramming through a vote of confidence in order to pave the way for subsequent approval of the highly unpopular University ‘reform.’

Italian universities have many problems, but this ‘reform’ does not address them. Simply put, it is a mix of devastating financial cuts and more than 500 new rules (more bureaucracy), many of which give absolute power to full professors – the very people who created the problems in the first place. Moreover the bill is intended to please the Confederation of Italian Industry, which has inspired and even partially authored the reform (see http://www.treellle.org). It imposes enterprise-style governing bodies composed of 11 members (down from around 20 members previously and therefore far less representative), three of whom will come from the private sector, in particular from the ranks of private companies. These companies thus get a seat on the boards and can decide on the creation (and the elimination) of entire degree courses; what is more, they get that seat free, without donating a cent – as normally do the corporate members who sit on the Boards of Trustees in other countries.

Who knows if all of this will improve the quality of our research and teaching, as the Government argues. What is certain is that it will reduce representation, democracy and academic freedom among our faculty. As for the accompanying financial cuts, even the (mostly silent or consenting) Italian Rectors have said that if the situation does not change in 2012 they will be unable to pay our stipends.

Unfortunately, after a stormy debate in Parliament, on December 22nd the ‘reform’ was approved. All Italian universities are currently in the process of revising their statutes (the universities’ ‘constitutions’) in order to start implementing it. This is a very delicate moment, as each university will be responsible for producing a new statute that must respect the ‘reform’ (at least formally) while, at the same time, managing to avoid making the university a subsidiary of business interests or an easy target for insatiable political appetites.

What is the destiny and role of the humanities in all this? The humanities will be particularly affected by this counter-reform. It is not just a matter of financial cuts or the increasing reliance on external agencies to evaluate ‘objectives’ and assess ‘worth’ in research and teaching (See what Wendell Piez has to say about such appraisals). What is most worrying is that, this time, Berlusconi’s henchmen have designed a ‘perfect storm’. Their aim has always been to decimate Italy’s intellectual, cultural and educational system, considered to be a breeding ground for dangerous political enemies and a haven for social parasites. (Other Ministers have also repeatedly called civil servants, school teachers and the like ‘fannulloni’, i.e. slackers). Undeniably, intellectuals, teachers, researchers and educators in Italy have steadfastly resisted the charms of Italy’s Prime Minister and have never been a reservoir of votes for his coalition – on the contrary. So why not hit them harder, now that the Bologna process and the recent financial crisis make a hatchet-job acceptable to the frightened eyes of tax payers?

Financial blood-letting combined with a plethora of new regulations and downsizing targets can cripple any healthy system. But if you really want to kill it off, all you have to do is to oblige the system to do the downsizing itself: this will pit its members against each other and a blood bath among the disciplines will surely follow. And this is exactly what is happening among our faculty. As in other countries previously, the ‘reform’ force departments to blend and merge, forming new and not necessarily coherent entities. Departments with fewer than 50 people will be required to merge with other departments, and together they may (or may not) form a ‘School’. Our Department of Italian Studies, for example, will be probably merge with Classics . On a general level, the most probable result of this process is that many courses and degrees will disappear and universities will be able to offer fewer learning opportunities to their students. While the fragmentation of courses due to a previous ‘reform’ was indeed unsatisfactory, this remedy is far worse than the problem.

Of course I am not saying that forcing academics to change their set habits is necessarily a bad thing. We desperately need new ideas and new blood among our faculty! But where will the new blood come from – who will do the hiring? – if in 2012 more than 35 Italian universities will not have the money to pay the stipends of their current teaching and administrative staff? This kind of downsizing is not weight-reduction for improved competitiveness, as the Government claims; it is slow starvation. Even innovative degrees, like those in Digital Humanities, risk disappearing as an effect of the ‘reform’.

Let us now address the fundamental issue behind all this crisis/reform/protests movement in Italy: why on earth would a government of any political ideology want to ruin its own highly-developed educational system? The international financial crisis is certainly a good excuse. I mentioned previously that Berlusconi has an axe to grind with Italy’s intellectual , but there is more to the story than that. Clearly, all over the world, and especially in Europe, similar blood-letting is occurring, using the financial crisis as an excuse. This leads us to surmise that the unelected world economic leaders – the kingpins who attend the World Economic Forum in Davos or the Bilderberg conferences – have decided that public higher education should no longer be a commodity ‘available to everyone’ in highly developed countries.

Didn’t these same economic leaders tell us, just a few years ago, that they wanted to create ‘knowledge-based societies’ where growth would come from know-how, research and innovation, and from the cross-fertilization of ideas that inevitably occurs when the entire population of a country – not just the elite – reaches the upper levels of education?

Apparently our unelected leaders have had second thoughts. Apparently they have noticed, at last, that centres of modern, Western-style educational excellence have been springing up for years in China, India, Brazil, and all over the world. “So,” they may have said to each other, “why not make use of all these minds instead of depending on the universities in our home countries to furnish us with the talents we need? After all, if we concentrate our intellectual workforce within the confines of our home countries, salaries will be based on rich-country standards and any scarcity of local talent will immediately drive those salaries up. And while it is true that cross-fertilization can more easily occur if an intellectual workforce is concentrated in a single area, labour organization and unrest can also occur there more easily as well. On the other hand, if our knowledge-based industries draw on talent from around the world, we can divide and rule. It makes it a snap to create a virtual workplace in which a Brazilian designer, a Chinese electronics wizard and an Indian computer expert thrash out new product lines almost as effectively as a home-based team could.”

If this indeed is what was whispered at a recent Davos or Bilderberg conference, then watch out: a New Educational World Order is at hand. Instead of high levels of tertiary education for ‘everyone’ in the West and low levels everywhere else, there will be small but consistent numbers of top-level university graduates in countries all over the globe. This will include tiny, once ‘underdeveloped’ states like Bahrain or Sri Lanka as well as – alas – our own mighty, once highly-educated Western countries. Expressed another way, there will be huge disparities in the educational levels of the populations of countries everywhere – and the cream of intellectual crop in each of them will be recruited by the global knowledge-based enterprises for their virtual workplaces.

From this perspective, mass production of quality ‘educational goods’ in every country is not only unsustainable in a time of financial crisis; it is also at odds with what may very well turn out to be a New World Order. Still surprised about the “Humanities crisis”? How it could be different, if “studia humanitatis” means studying and understanding the human being, that is, his diversity and cultural richness? The humanities will never be assimilated by such a project, as they are designed to find out and celebrate the dignity of human difference. This is the worst enemy of a globalized and elitist education.

Anyway, I will return to the economic (hence ontological) irrelevance of culture (i.e. humanities) in my next post, commenting upon the recent intervention of our Minister of Economy and Finance, Mr. Giulio Tremonti, who when responding to a journalist who was asking him about the devastating cuts in education and culture, reportedly said something like: “Dante non si mangia nel panino” (“You can’t fill your sandwich with Dante”).

But is that true?

Alla prossima puntata!

(Co-authored with Patrick Boylan)

Read this post in Italian.

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Appendix

Here you can read the English translation of a document written by a newly born Italian Association of Associate University Professors; you will surely find the situation described similar to that in your university system. Since most Italian media justify or play down the government’s attacks on public tertiary institutions, these associate professors taxed themselves and bought an entire page in a national newspaper to make these views known.

The original document of the Conpass Association can be downloaded from here:

http://www.professoriassociati.it/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/ISO-8859-15101224-Universit%C3%A0-0408-CS-24-12-1.pdf

IN DEFENSE OF THE ITALIAN PUBLIC UNIVERSITY

The government says that Italian Universities are not competitive
internationally. Thus it has proposed a ‘reform’ and further cuts in
funding.

WE KNOW, however, that the average of the scientific production of Italian
universities is superior to that of French, German or American universities
(1).
WE KNOW furthermore that Italy is seventh (tied with France) in the number
of universities rated among the top 500 worldwide (2).
WE KNOW, finally, that young Italian researchers are eagerly recruited by
universities everywhere… except in Italy, where funds to support
university research have been drastically cut.

The government says its ‘reform’ (the Gelmini bill) will reduce the
unchecked power of the caste of full professors (‘baroni’).
WE OBSERVE, however, that the Gelmini bill actually gives this caste
exclusive control, as in the old feudal university system (3.).

The government says that this law will increase opportunities for higher
education for all.
We note, however, that the law ruthlessly cuts funding for scholarships and
student aid; what funds remain are allocated without taking into
consideration the financial hardship of the applicants.

The government says that it has listened to all stakeholders.
WE ASK: exactly when and where were our alternative proposals discussed?

The government says that the law must be passed immediately, with no further
discussion, to ‘hush up’ possible social unrest.
WE CONTINUE to think that elected leaders should, instead, listen to that
unrest and take the time to reflect on the solution.

WE WHO TEACH AND CONDUCT RESEARCH in the Italian university system;
we who must get by with much fewer resources than our colleagues elsewhere
in the world, although we are just as qualified as they;
we who have sought to modernize the Italian university system from within,
though free, open, transparent, non-sectarian initiatives like CoNPAss (the
national association of associate professors, www.professoriassociati.it)
and the network of university researchers (www.rete29aprile.it);
we who want to be able to offer a future to our students;
we who have constantly opposed the university caste system;
we at last who have constantly (and peacefully) denounced the false M.
Gelmini ‘reform,’ which only pretends to modernize the university system;

WE CALL for your solidarity.
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NOTES
1. Based on the total number of researchers and the total number of papers
published, in SCImago Journal & Country Rank, 2009; OECD Science, Technology
and Industry Outlook, OECD, 2006.
2. Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) , 2010,
http://www.arwu.org/ARWU2010.jsp.
3. Combined effect of zero turnover and accelerated retirements which puts
the governance of the university system in the hands of a small number of
influential full professors: other staff such as associate professors and
researchers will have no say in the tenure Commissions; indeed, researchers
(who also shoulder much of the teaching) will no longer have a stable
position in the university system as at present.

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