A good analysis by Andrea Ichino on sole24ore.
Even countries that are stronger than ours, such as the United Kingdom, are forced to cut public spending heavily, and in particular funds for education and research. But abroad, universities have wider margins of flexibility than ours to face the reduction of funding with minor traumas. First, the possibility of reducing the overall expenditure for employees, i.e. the "payroll".
Secondly, and even more importantly, the possibility of freely changing, but in opposite directions for given wage bill, the wage levels and the corresponding number of workers.
Unfortunately, neither the Gelmini reform nor the opposition's proposals address this central problem for the Italian university system.
Without a solution, even the small steps forward introduced by the reform will not be able to generate really positive effects.
Imagine a university that spends 70 on employee salaries and 30 on all other functions. Because of the crisis, its funds are cut by 25% and we assume that nothing can be done to avoid it or that we prefer to reform the system before refinancing it.
To the seriousness of the cut is added, however, the fact that it must entirely concentrate on the 30 constituted by the other expenses, because the salaries of employees and their number are untouchable. And so the university finds itself spending only 5 for everything it has to do, in addition to the 70 of the unchanged payroll.
In particular, it cannot, as would seem logical, distribute the cuts in the most efficient way among the various items of expenditure, including that for employees. What is the point of strangling the activity of the university by limiting its flexibility to manage the cuts, while there would be employees who cost a lot and produce little (a case unfortunately very frequent in the Italian academy), and therefore on which to download the cuts would have much less deleterious effects?
The untouchability of the wage bill combined with the obligatory flexibility of the other budget items is the reason why today most Italian universities find themselves with over 90% of their budget blocked by expenses for employees and are therefore unable to perform their functions.
This also happens for universities until a few years ago considered virtuous, because even for these, by dint of cutting only the other items, the expenditure for employees is the only one left.
What universities would need instead, especially at a time of contraction in overall funding, is to be able to reduce the wage bill by firing unproductive professors and using the impressive resources they would free up to hire and promote the best (but only the best) young researchers.
The exchange between less quantity and higher quality, even if better paid, could allow to contract the wage bill with less heavy damage to the proper functioning of the universities. But there are many students, someone will say. But who said we have to admit them all?
In most other countries, access to university is reserved only for students who deserve it by financially helping the less well-off who need a selective and quality university, not a useless piece of paper given to everyone.
Even in the case of students, therefore, it would be enough to exchange quantity for quality, generalizing the limited number and abolishing the demagogic liberalization of admissions. All this would be possible by setting the reform of the university system (but also of the school system) in a radically different way from what all the projects under discussion, including the Gelmini one, propose. That is, a reform based on the binomial "autonomy-evaluation", which leaves the universities free to organize themselves freely as they prefer, especially in the management of human resources and the training offer, except to provide them with funds only on the basis of achieving satisfactory results in research and teaching.
A reform that leaves University A free to spend all its salaries on a few excellent researchers who teach a few excellent students, and university B instead of hiring many teachers less interested in frontier research and ready to accept greater teaching loads for students who are not interested in giving their best.
Same budget, perhaps, but different choices all potentially desirable as long as they give, in their field, good results. Without these margins of flexibility, universities will become phalansteries full of dequalified and underpaid teachers and students in parking lot with no hope of finding work.
And everyone, teachers and students, will look into each other's eyes not even having desks, plasters and blackboards to do lessons.