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open letter to Fabio Mussi, the new Italian communist of the banana party

Salvatore Fiore | 30.12.2007 20:28 | Culture | Education | Globalisation | Birmingham

Fabio Mussi, Minister of University and Research and leader of the Sinistra Democratica party in Italy has proposed in the Decreto Milleproroghe a reform of Italian universities and research. This is an open letter to Ministro Mussi which questions the likely detrimental consequences of such a reform based on the neoliberal British HE system. In particular the letter challenges the harm to academic freedom and research suggested by a system that encourages competitiveness and looks after capital interests. Vergogna!

Today the Italian newspaper "La Repubblica" has cited that the Decreto Milleproroghe reform proposed by Fabio Mussi, Minister of University and Research and leader of the Sinistra Democratica party in Italy is a sort of Copernican revolution. But what Copernican revolution? This is a carbon copy of what researchers and academics in Britain are trying to get rid of!

The following is an open letter to Fabio Mussi, the new Italian communist of the banana party.

30 December 2007

Egr. Ministro Mussi,

I have today read on Repubblica about the reform you proposed of Italian universities and research with the Decreto Milleproroghe. As an Italian, I am writing from the UK, with experience spanning ten years of study, research and university teaching here. I have worked in and researched the British Higher Education System and its prevailing quality processes and structures – a system from which you draw the design for your proposed reform.

The British Department for Education and Skills defines universities as a resource for a competitive knowledge society. This attributes power to the economy to drive developments in education and research, while politicians and university executives preach about efficiency and competitiveness. The goal then is to avoid a trade-off in quality so that Higher Education can appear to bring a return on investment to society.

What is actually meant by quality, however, in a mass, marketised Higher Education sector, is somewhat obscure. Repeated changes in the discourse on quality since Thatcher’s government have compelled universities towards a performativity culture. Both the established universities and the many new degree awarding institutions created as a result of legislation in 1992 have been made answerable to the HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) as they are forced to demonstrate quality in terms of value for money in return for allocation of funds. The universities pursue an agenda of efficiency, with control devolved to agencies including the Quality Assurance Agency, to which universities are accountable via processes of audit and inspection. The pressure of such accountability is invariably felt most by the academics and knowledge workers rather than the self-styled presidents at the top of the institutional hierarchy.

On the other side are the students, now paying anything up to £7000 a year in tuition fees on the promise of better wages and employability upon graduation, only to discover, for the large part that their ‘innovative’ and ‘cutting edge’ qualifications tailored to the perpetually changing needs of a saturated service economy, make them less likely to find employment than if they had never studied at all.

Clearly agendas for educational quality and improvement should be built upon specification of educational purposes and standards and depend upon appreciation of the underlying context and how people learn, interact, sustain, develop or destroy a culture. Similarly, strategies and policies aimed at the enhancement of the quality of the provision of an academic institution should be read in concomitance to the overall organisation development aims and strategies.

In reality, the stakeholders meeting the shortfall and exploiting the competitiveness arising out of decreasing state funding, are primarily large corporations and multinationals, with a purely financial interest in research and teaching. Universities in Britain have moved to embrace lucrative partnerships with such capitalists as they are forced into increasing competitiveness with each other.

As such, while quality can be viewed either progressively in terms of educational improvement or performatively as meaninglessly quantifying aspects of the system, it is most worryingly and most prolifically under the British system, taken as a mechanism to increase power from above and institutionalise compliance and accountability, at the expense of areas of teaching and research that aren’t expected to bring short-term financial return.

The commensurable increase in quality required by auditing authorities with the power to give and take away funding from universities, is accordingly exemplified by permanent struggle, elusive goals and imperialism, such that quality then becomes effectively colonised by consumerism and short-term effectiveness. Quality, perversely, becomes a matter of numbers.

In Britain, the effect this has had on research has been particularly damaging. The Research Assessment Exercise, a process under perpetual review and soon to be replaced altogether, has attracted serious criticism for the way in which it causes barriers for less established, less mainstream and less commercially-interested researchers and departments, while rewarding established researchers and departments with much larger allocations of available funding. Those who need the most help – who are at the start of their careers or who are unable to attract corporate funding due to the nature of their research (however valuable to society) – are hindered and left to struggle, while others who are already ahead, are helped and supported to go further. As a supposed left-wing politician, you will surely recognize this as a fundamental ideological tenet of capitalism.

The Research Assessment Exercise, a process of allocating funding according to performance in research, according to specific criteria for what constitutes good performance, thus purposefully furthers some types of research, opposing equal academic representation and denying the free and fair distribution of resources.

There are many examples of researchers in Britain who have been excluded from research because they were not in a position (through ideology or practicality) to satisfy the prescribed quality criteria. These are, or were, capable and conscientious researchers. These researchers were not assisted by increasing competitiveness and society will not be able to benefit from their research because it was closed down before it could really develop.

Dear Ministro Mussi, the system you would like to implement is that described above. Does this really look left-wing? I think perhaps you need to turn 180° around, having confused left-wing with neo-liberalism, or even with ‘anglo-american neo-conservativism’. Alternatively, if you are unable to gyrate such a distance maybe you should leave your job to those who are still facing in the right direction.

This, however, is not the point, which in fact regards the allocation of resources and academic freedom.

Recent press reports suggest that the UK has hit the bottom of the league in academic freedom in Europe. The competitiveness of British Higher Education now means that the directions of universities, of research and of teaching are in the hands of unqualified and commercially interested consultants and managers. Researchers and lecturers are ‘troops’ being led into ‘battle’ by university ‘presidents’ who are advised strategically by multinational firms of management consultants.
In short, competitiveness is being embraced as a battle; one for capital, rather than knowledge or exchange of cultures, although of course neither Thatcher nor Blair would admit as much.

And it is a dirty battle. An increase in the amount of misconduct in research (e.g. faked research results, fixing outputs, copying work, etc.) perpetrated in order to access funding and boost profiles of departments or universities is another disturbing consequence of such systems identified here in the UK.

More fundamentally, research which has to fulfill financial outcomes is itself a flawed concept because most social research has got outcomes, the value of which are not measurable quantitatively or subject to the laws of finance or similar quality measures you would like to introduce.

Academic freedom allows that research must be disinterested and conducted for the wealth of humanity; not for the wealth of multinational corporations (We can certainly learn from the past about the bad financing of ghost projects).

The point, Ministro, is that academic freedom is not the product of any policy. It is the right of academics. If a person has achieved the right to be known as an academic and to publish his or her research, it is your obligation to guarantee this right, not to trade it in exchange for capital.

Dear Minstro Mussi, you are opening up universities for capital exploitation. Is this really left wing? Again, perhaps you should turn 180° if you are to call yourself left-wing, because up to now you are only proposing neo-liberal reforms which translate into submission to anglo american neo-conservative ways of thinking; the very same ways so much criticised by yourself and your colleagues during your protest marches.

If this is still not enough, I would also like to highlight to you that many universities in Southern Italy suffer as a result of low research income. How would you propose to lift such problems from Southern Italian universities? It is likely that your system will inevitably cut out some universities and, as a self-fulfilling prophecy, will create a two-tier system of universities: those in centre-north Italy with plenty of funding, brain-draining from Southern Italy and those in Southern Italy instead anchored to systems of paternalism and patriarchy, systems of protection over careers and access to research.

Your reform, which offers a carrot in supposedly creating thousands of jobs for new researchers, while giving a stick in the form of such a Quality Assurance system, is masking the real truth behind your project; that you are selling the university system of research and teaching to neo liberal ideologies of the free market.

To create thousands of new researchers is not an easy task and what you are proposing is to see instantaneously, a new army of research scientists. But with a past spent on what? You do not become a researcher from one day to another. You need to spend several years of hard dedication of your life to understand a field. Where will Italy draw such resources from? To be a researcher you need to be framed within the international field and can call yourself a research scientist nowadays only if you have international acknowledgement. It is up to the single individual and not to the good intentions of your government and its policies. You may well risk to raise expectations in a few individuals who will only profit from finances allocated to their universities, whilst drawing Italy further back in research.

If Italy is currently not in a state of advanced research, how do you pretend to form 10,000 new researchers in one year? You are selling the university/research as though it is wonderland, when in reality it has become a highly competitive international field.

Your neglect in not considering certain aspects of research and opening elusive futures to research students, their families and all Italians, is worrying.

Your supposed left-wing thinking is betrayed purposefully by your own words. Instead of opening a phase of transition towards equal access and resource distribution to universities and researchers, you are instead opening up competition between themselves.

If all these grand operations with regard to universities have been brought about strategically and hidden purposefully behind the words of the President Napolitano, to make sure that Italian researchers do not abandon Italy, there is only one answer to this; you do not need to put universities in competition because doing so, you will automatically put researchers in competition also. This breaches the cornerstone on which research is based: academic freedom.

The state should be the guarantor of free circulation of ideas, independently from the financial situations in which a university finds itself. The state should be the guarantor that ideas are brought forward and developed without the need to compete and generate capital. Wealth generation it is not an antecedent of the free circulation of ideas in a democratic country. If not, it is only because there is a hidden agenda of which you should make all Italians aware.

By all means encourage Italian researchers to return to Italy. But don’t sell them out in the process. The finance for bringing Italian researchers back to Italy can be made available without the need for universities to enter into competition. Such strategies as that you have proposed are dignified only in a banana republic.

So, Ministro Mussi, like others in the centre-left coalition, can you please let us hear something that is left-wing?

P.S. Dear Ministro Mussi, I am writing in English because you say you would like to bring Italy to the heart of Europe. I therefore expect that by now you will write and speak English fluently.

Your Sincerely
Salvatore Fiore

Salvatore Fiore
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  1. well done — gr8