Why a university lecturer in statistics is giving up his job

ROME LETTER: It's a family affair at most Italian universities these days, where merit counts for little, writes PADDY AGNEW…

ROME LETTER:It's a family affair at most Italian universities these days, where merit counts for little, writes PADDY AGNEW

THE OTHER morning we bumped into an old friend, university lecturer "Bernardo".

Over a cappuccino, he told us how he had terminated his working relationship with a well-known university in central Italy. Had the worldwide economic turmoil begun to bite even in a provincial Italian university, I inquired? Not so.

Bernardo had given up his job of his own volition and for good reason. His annual salary for this year will come to the grand total of €1,000 - one thousand. Even though he is a qualified statistician with more than 30 years' experience, Bernardo had been teaching and examining students for the princely sum of €83 a week.

On top of that, during his regular two-day stints at the university, he had to stay one night in a hotel, at his own expense obviously.

So, why had he done it? The answer to that represents a part explanation of the byzantine, fundamentally unjust nature of the Italian university system which, with the exception of some isolated cases of excellence, has never been much bothered by the concept of meritocracy.

Bernardo had done the job, originally for €3,000 annually, on the unspoken understanding that if he "hung in there", did the right thing and did not sully his bib, he would in the end be rewarded with some form of professorship.

It is a bit like an unwritten indenture except that in this case, Bernardo is much closer to 60 than 16. The problem was that in Bernardo's case, there was no sign of any movement from his rector. In Italy, university rectors are often referred to as baroni(barons). Maybe there is a reason.

Recently, a pioneering stem-cell transplant operation in Barcelona, in which a Colombian woman, Claudia Castillo, was fitted with a tissue-engineered windpipe transplant, understandably generated worldwide headlines.

Not everybody will have paid much attention to the fact that the surgeon who carried out the operation was an Italian, Dr Paolo Macchiarini.

In interviews with the Italian media, Dr Macchiarini (50) admitted candidly that in order to pursue his career, he had been forced to leave Italy 17 years ago. Since then, he has worked in Birmingham, the US, Paris, Hanover and finally Barcelona.

For much of that time, he has travelled back to Tuscany once every two weeks to be with his family who are still based in Viareggio. "After I had graduated and specialised in thoracic surgery, I wanted to enter university to continue my studies in that field. I was blocked, I was told not to apply for the job because the result, even before the interviews, had already been decided. There were the usual raccomandati[those with pull] in the queue in front of me."

In one sense, Dr Macchiarini was lucky. An ongoing judicial investigation into the University of Messina in Sicily has revealed that several candidates for university posts received threatening phone calls "suggesting" that maybe they should withdraw their applications.

Next March, Messina rector Franco Tomasello, along with 23 professors and other university employees, will stand trial, faced with a bewildering series of charges that include extortion, abuse of public office, fraud, embezzlement of public funds and ill-treatment of employees.

Not every Italian university is quite so intimidating; indeed many of them create a positively family environment. The outgoing rector of the University of Foggia has no fewer than six family members - wife, son, daughter, son-in-law and others - on his payroll. Then there was the newly appointed Foggia statistics professor, Corrado Crocetta, who at his very first meeting awarded a post to - guess who - his wife.

Nor is Foggia an isolated case.

Rome daily La Repubblicarecently assessed the country's medical faculties to discover that the same surnames turn up with embarrassing frequency - 21.1 per cent of staff at the Milan Statale, 30.3 per cent at La Sapienza and the Cattolica in Rome, 21.5 per cent in Bologna, 38.4 per cent in Messina and 34.4 per cent at two Naples universities just happen to have the same surname as a very senior figure in that faculty. Just a coincidence, of course.

The Italian university system, populated as it is by many brilliant students, has been sullied by, among other things, an extraordinary sector growth over the last 15 years. By the beginning of the 1990s, there were 41 registered universities in Italy. Today, there are 91 offering 5,500 degree courses including erudite concerns such as "the Science and Technology of Packaging", "the Science of Dog and Cat Breeding" or "the Science of Linguistic Mediation for TV Dialogue Translators".

In an effort to attract funds, some of today's (less well-known) universities have been especially creative, offering "credits" to Automobile Club or bank employees in return for healthy registration fees and a shortened degree course which "assesses" the employee's office experience as equivalent to three years' study. This means that the man from the Automobile Club turns up, does a few exams (almost certainly all oral) and is given the equivalent of an honours degree.

All of which might explain just why Italian graduates - those who, unlike Dr Macchiarini, have not already left the country - have been out on the streets in protest for much of the last month.

As a recent analysis by La Repubblicaconcluded: "The brain drain from Italy is just the tip of the iceberg. Our universities, despite everything, represent a golden source of talented students . . . who, however, are frustrated by a hidebound system incapable of realising their true potential."