12 January 2012

Incentives to boost "excellent" hirings in Italian Universities

State hands off individual merit: serious rankings, please⎯ and incentives for top-notch hiring.

On Christmas Eve's eve 2011, fifty so-called virtuous Universities (UV henceforth, defined by the Ministry of Research as those with less than 90% of their FFO -ordinary state funding- devoted to personnel costs) received a significant State-funded boon via the Piano Straordinario di Reclutamento (PSR), an "emergency plan" for the hiring of associate professors. About as many Universities deemed non-virtuous according to the same criterion (UNV) simply got left out. First off, one wonders whether this criterion makes sense at all, considering that about 75% of Italian Universities will break the "non-virtuosity" barrier in 2012 even accounting for the indirect financial support from the PSR, and of course if the similarly-sized funding forthcoming in 2013 will be allotted in the same way. But this is, in a sense, the least of concerns.

Indeed, the very concept behind the PSR is outright funny. Access to professorships, only at the associate level, is reserved to people who already are associate professors in Italy or abroad, or who already won a "concorso" (Italian for the official procedure of interviewing, examination and eventual hiring), and possibly a few others such as ERC grant winners or such - all of whom will be further examined for selection. It thus paradoxically funds "concorsi" for people who are mostly "concorso"-winners already. And in a stroke of genius which would have made Kafka proud, current assistant professors will not have access to these positions.

People who are already associate professors will also be affected negatively. Sure, the PSR enables them to attempt a move to virtuous universities, but that's by and large only a theoretical possibility. In exchange for which, a very worrying future perspective opens up. In a nutshell, UV's will be reluctant to open up new full professorships as more and more teaching needs (the foremost concern of most Italian universities) are tended to by the new associates - and  UNV's will be increasingly unable to afford them. Compound this with the several past years of scarce to non existent new full-professor openings, and you get increased demotivation, decreased retention in favor of industry or professions, and tendency to emigration among the mid- to advanced-career ranks as a logical consequence.

There are additional, less obvious perverse twists in the PSR. The a priori "virtuous/non-virtuos" selection, based as it is on a very coarse, grossly oversimplified, purely financial criterion applying to the institution as a whole, will affect drastically -and negatively- individual researchers (who by and large cannot be blamed for the financial misdeeds of University managers).

After the PSR dust has settled, even discounting its saturating effect for the associate professorship market at large, assistant professors in UNV's will have less opportunities for progression as their employers become more and more underfunded and hence less virtuous, in a vicious (pun intended) downward spiral. Conversely, assistant professors in UV will directly benefit of the (relative) excess funding of their employers in both the number of slots and their being local. Of course, this applies indirectly to associate professors too.

 In addition, overfunding specific Universities and specific position types will most certainly not increase the quality of hiring. It is natural to expect that the chronic malaise of Italian academia, old-boy-network and clientele politics, will fester ever more.

The key to reducing the adverse effects of this ham-fisted intervention (granting that it will not be repealed or suspended) is the forthcoming new national academic evaluation ("abilitazione"). It is quite unclear that a national evaluation be a good idea at all, but since we are going to have it anyway, let us use it for the better.

The key points are the following.

First: the evaluation should be severe and stringent, and based on (scientific and teaching) performance and results. It should not be, that is, an obvious sinecura for any academics applying for it: this todos caballeros alternative would simply shift the reference zero and produce no observable effect.

Second: the evaluation should have a ranking, i.e. it should not simply be pass/fail.

Third: Universities will hire voluntarily and freely any candidate who passes the evaluation; but there will be financial incentives for hiring the top-ranking people (e.g. in the form of a budget surplus decreasing with the ranking). That is: hire as you please, but choosing the best will be at a premium - in cash and now. Better results and performance later on will be a welcome addition. Of course, this will also cause more Universities to compete for the best people, and therefore improve the leverage of new hires to obtain e.g. research allowances (salaries, sadly, are fixed nation-wide). The rationale, of course, is that individuals and groups will respond to incentives - much less to disincentives, which are easily circumvented.

Fourth: the evaluation committees will include a majority of experts from foreign institutions. As these experts have generally no skin in the game, they will safeguard the sanity of the process from national old-boy networking, increasing the likelihood of hiring excellent people not pre-connected to Italian academia at all. For instance, say, each scientific sector may have 2 external (i.e. professionally based outside of Italy) and 1 internal (i.e. a full professor in an Italian University, selected randomly) committee members.

 In closing, it is worth pointing out that these proposals are just a way to make the best of the current bleak situation. In general, it would be advisable that the central powers (the University Ministry, the Government, funding agencies) refrained from incessant experimentation (see for instance the confusing and byzantine new PRIN funding scheme) and from market doping through continual intervention. Much of the lamentable state of Italian Universities has to do with their dependence on state intervention - with the attendant slip-knot-like strings attached.

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