Donald Gillies, e’ ora Professore Emerito di Filosofia della Scienza e Matematica all’ University College London. E’ autore, tra gli altri,dei libri: La filosofia della scienza nel XX secolo (insieme a Giulio Gioriello) , Intelligenza artificiale e metodo scientifico, e del libro (in inglese) How Should Research be Organised?. Ci ha mandato delle riflessioni sul nostro libro “I ricercatori non crescono sugli alberi” che siamo onorati di pubblicare.
The Age Structure of University Staff in Italy and the UK
by Donald Gillies, University College London
1. Introduction. What is the most serious problem facing the Italian universities?
In recent years there have been a number of books criticizing the present situation in Italian universities and suggesting reforms. Among the usual targets for criticism are familism and the power of the barons. Francesco Sylos Labini and Stefano Zapperi’s book: I ricercatori non crescono sugli alberi, Laterza, 20101 is unusual in that, in chapter 2: Università Invecchiata, it draws attention to another problem which is usually overlooked. This problem is, however, perhaps the most serious problem facing the Italian universities. It has already had very negative consequences, and will almost certainly have even worse consequences in the future if nothing is done about it. This problem is posed by the unusual age structure of university staff in Italian universities. Compared to other comparable countries such as France, Spain or the UK, the staff in Italian universities are significantly older. It is also much harder for a younger person to get an appointment in an Italian university than in universities in other countries. So the imbalance in age structure is steadily getting worse, with a possible catastrophe looming in a decade or so. Something should be done about this problem, and, for that reason, I think that a comparison of the situation in Italy and the UK may be helpful. The UK has avoided this problem, and so the UK experience may be helpful in considering how the problem should be dealt with. In the next section, I will give a brief outline of the situation based on the book of Sylos Labini and Zapperi, and then I will turn to consider what remedies might be adopted.
2. Statistics on the age structure of staff in universities in Italy and the UK
Sylos Labini and Zapperi write (p. 33): “In Italy the number of university teachers over 50 in all disciplines is … 56% of the total, as against 16% in Great Britain … In Italy we find only 2% under 30, as against 13% in Great Britain … the group from 30 to 40 constitutes 14% of university teachers as against 26% in Great Britain …” These differences are really striking, and in some disciplines the situation is even more extreme. For example, in the case of university teachers of physics (pp. 25-6): “ … only 2% are less than 40, while 48% are more than 60 (as many as 29.5% are more than 65).” One cannot help remembering in this context that Einstein did his best work when under 40.
How did this curious situation arise? The answer is that as a result of a law passed in 1980, there was a huge intake of university teachers. This was fortunate for those who got into the university system at that time, but it effectively meant that it became very difficult for any one to get a job in an Italian university for many years thereafter. For the thirty years after 1980 therefore the average age of university staff in Italy steadily increased. Now of course eventually the huge intake of 1980 will reach retirement age, though this is much higher in Italy (70 or 72) than in the UK (65). Sylos Labini and Zapperi compare this to a tsunami hitting the shore. After years in which there were no posts available in Italian universities, suddenly it will be necessary to fill a huge number of posts. There may at that stage not be enough qualified people to fill these posts, and a potential catastrophe involving a dramatic reduction of standards hangs over the Italian university system. Moreover there is the possibility that the same problem will reproduce itself. After a few years when anyone, even if not very well qualified, will be able to get a university post, there then may be another long period in which even the very brightest and best are unable to have a university career.
As Sylos Labini and Zapperi point out, what is required for any university system to function well is steady and regular recruitment of younger academics into the university each year while a corresponding number of older staff retire. In such a case, it would be possible to pick the best of each generation and maintain a high standard in the university system over time. However, exactly the opposite holds in Italy, where a generational boom-bust situation prevails.
How has this affected younger Italian academics, who have been for a long time, and still are, largely excluded from following a career in the Italian university system? Some have indeed stayed in Italy, but they have only been able to get temporary, badly paid posts with little hope of these turning into permanent positions. However, many have decided to leave Italy altogether, and seek a position abroad. Sylos Labini and Zapperi mention the “Italian invasion” of France. In fact young Italians have won many research positions offered by the CNRS in France. For example (p. 77): “In the 2007 competition in physics, mathematics and astronomy, Italian candidates won 35% of the positions advertised by CNRS (70% if we consider only theoretical physics …” (It is worth noting that the age imbalance in physics in Italian universities, as we noted above, is particularly extreme.) In fact the same phenomenon is noticeable in the UK as well as France. I am constantly encountering young lecturers or researchers in London who are Italian. In my own department which is quite small (9 full-time members of staff), we have one young Italian lecturer, and another young Italian who is a teaching fellow. This situation is excellent for the UK, France and no doubt other countries which have been able to attract the cream of young Italian researchers, but it is correspondingly bad for Italy. After all, the Italian state has covered the expenses of educating these young people, but it is not reaping the fruits of that expense by having them working in Italy. Moreover the prosperity of any economy in the modern world depends on having a strong research base, and Italy is following the strange policy of strengthening research in its competitors while putting its own research at risk.
What is the Italian government doing about this situation? As we might expect, they are passing laws which will make it worse not better.
“In fact, article 66 of the law of 25 June 2008 limits recruitment to universities in the period 2009-2013 to 20% of the turnover … This means that for every five people who retire, it is possible to replace only one.” (p. 35)
Obviously this law will make a bad situation even worse. Let us now consider what might be done to make things better rather than worse.
3. How to improve the situation
It does not take much reflection to see that the only way to improve the situation is to persuade senior members of staff of the universities to retire earlier, while, at the same time, guaranteeing that if a senior member of staff retires his or her post will be refilled, usually by someone at a junior level. The first step then is to repeal the law of 25 June 2008 and replace it with what could be called a ‘guaranteeing law’, that is a law which guarantees that if a senior member of staff retires, his or her post will be refilled, and that in nearly all cases the post will be refilled by someone at junior level. As long as the law of 25 June 2008 remains in place, it is obviously better, for the university system as a whole, for existing members of staff to remain in post as long as possible, since, if they retire, there is no gain for the younger generation, and the university will deteriorate since there will be fewer staff to deal with the same number, or even a greater number, of students. A ‘guaranteeing law’ as described above will result in both reducing the costs of Italian universities, while actually improving them by reducing the anomaly in the age structure. Surely the replacement of the law of 25 June 2008, by such a ‘guaranteeing law’ would be a perfectly feasible step for a new government in Italy.
Let us now turn to the other side of the equation. Can senior staff in Italian universities be persuaded to retire earlier? Here I think the experience in the UK is useful, but I must utter a word of warning. The pension system for academics in the UK is different from that in Italy, and issues to do with retirement depend a great deal on the pension system. I am not familiar with the pension situation in Italy, and so the best thing I can do is to describe what has happened in the UK, and leave it to others to consider whether these strategies are possible in a modified form which takes account of the Italian rather than UK pension system.
Now the first thing is that the retirement age in the UK for university staff has been 65, and so much lower than it is in Italy. Would it be possible to reduce the retirement age to 65 in Italy? This would already go a long way to solve the problem. As we have seen, 29.5% of university teachers in physics are over 65, and so the retirement of this group would create a lot of posts for young Italian physicists who might be enticed back from Paris and London. It could be objected that this is a policy of ageism, i.e. discrimination against the old. Of course I am strongly against discrimination against the old, but discriminating in favour of the old and against the young is also wrong. Instead of ‘ageism’. an expression which gives only one side of the equation, I would rather speak of ‘generational fairness’, which should ensure that the young do not gain at the expense of the old or vice versa. Surely generational fairness in Italy would favour the reduction of the retirement age to 65, and many senior members of the university might accept this, provided of course that a ‘guaranteeing law’ is in place.
However, in the UK, many senior staff of the universities who are under 65 take early retirement quite voluntarily. How is this possible? What could induce a university professor to retire at 60 or even 55, if he or she is allowed to stay on until 65?
To see the answer, let us consider the activities of university professors. These are research, teaching, and management/academic politics. Now those who love management/academic politics will never want to retire early. Once they have retired, they will no longer be able to indulge in their favourite activity. A lower compulsory retirement age is the only solution for such professors. However, it would be both cynical and unrealistic to think that all university professors love management/academic politics. Many find these activities boring and time-consuming and would much rather be doing research or teaching students.
Let us consider next a professor whose favourite activity is research. For such a professor early retirement would be an attractive option provided he or she is able to continue his research. This is often easy to do in the UK system. The professor takes the title ‘Emeritus Professor’, and this entitles him or her to a university email address, and library facilities. This costs the university almost nothing, but allows our Emeritus Professor, if he or she carries out non-laboratory research, to continue with that research. Indeed our Emeritus Professor would have no teaching or management duties, and so would be able to devote more time to research. This could be very attractive for someone who genuinely loves research. The case of laboratory researchers is more complicated, but something could often be done in these cases as well. Retired professors would be working for a good bit of their time on research, but would be costing the university little or nothing since they would be living on their pensions. Surely this is a deal which could benefit both the professors and the university.
But what should be done in the case of a professor who mainly likes teaching? Even in this case, early retirement could be an attractive option for someone who is genuinely fond of teaching, but would like to do less than the full-time load. In London, for example, I know of several cases in which a professor has retired early but his head of department has agreed that he or she continues to give one course a year, paid on a part-time basis. Such a retired professor can continue to do a bit of teaching and have contacts with students, while avoiding the down-side of a very heavy load, which in Italy of course would include the nightmare of conducting a large number of oral exams.
On top of this, there is also the possibility in the UK of mixed situations, in which a professor retires and draws his or her pension, while at the same time, being employed by the university on a part-time to do some, but not all the duties of a full-time member of staff. I actually adopted an arrangement of this kind. In 2004, I retired at the age of 60 and was able to draw my pension, while, at the same time, I was re-employed by the university on a part-time basis. The economics were such that I earned as much, or perhaps slightly more, than I would have done as a full-time professor. The advantage for me was that I had a smaller amount of teaching and administrative duties, so that I could devote more time to research. The advantage for the university was that they paid me less, and so could appoint someone at a junior level without paying overall more than if I had remained a full-time professor. This shows how extra jobs for younger members of staff can be created while senior members of staff do not suffer in any way, and perhaps even gain in some respects.
Of course, as I remarked above, the viability of any scheme of this kind in the Italian context depends very much on the pension system. However, the general principle behind such schemes is clear enough. The boundary between having a full-time post and being retired should be blurred. It should be possible for professors to continue some of their research and/or teaching activities after retirement. This would mean that early retirement could become an attractive option for many professors, and if many professors retire early, with a ‘guaranteeing law’ in place, this would create more posts for younger academics, and help to rectify the age imbalance among the staff in Italian universities.
(Donald Gillies had an academic career in the University of London, and is now Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Science and Mathematics at University College London. He is married to an Italian, and for a long time has spent at least two months a year in Italy. He has published two books in Italian: (1) (with Giulio Giorello) La filosofia della scienza nel XX secolo, and (2) Intelligenza artificiale e metodo scientifico )