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‘First respect, then assess!’: anti-research assessment protest in Italian universities (#NoVQR)

How can you ask to judge the quality of a system while you are also subjecting it to the most massive disinvestment in the history of the Italian state?

Palazzo Giusso (Napoli). Palazzo Giusso (Napoli). Wikicommons/Sistermone. Some rights reserved.Over the last few months, a campaign inviting Italian academics to abstain from participating in the latest nationwide research assessment exercise (VQR 2011-2014) has been gaining momentum.

It all started with a petition signed by around 14,000 academics calling for the government to back off on its decision to write off the years 2011-2014 when calculating seniority in service and corresponding pay levels for academics.

The austerity-driven four-year salary freeze affected almost all public sector workers in Italy (with the exception of judges and magistrates), but academics not only were the last category to see their rise in pay restored, but the only ones for whom 2011-2014 were basically written off altogether.

This was perceived as an act of discrimination by academic staff who felt uniquely singled out among public sector workers as deserving of financial punishment. Being assessed for research activities carried out in years which have not been counted financially also contributed to the sense of disrespect.  It has been only recently, however, that the campaign has shifted towards using an instrument which had already been deployed by our French colleagues in 2009 and which led eventually to the suppression of the French Evaluation Agency (ANEER) in 2013: to abstain from participating in the second national research assessment exercise (VQR), either by refusing to submit one’s publications for evaluation or to participate as an expert in the committee work, thereby scuppering the whole (expensive) exercise on grounds of statistical inaccuracy.

The whole effort has been driven almost single-handedly by the formidable figure of Carlo Ferraro - befittingly a professor of ‘Traction Thermal Motors’ - at the Polytechnic of Turin - wielding the basic communication tool of mass emails. But the campaign has also taken off in social media and achieved the support of student unions such as Link, and precarious researchers in the 29 April network, influential websites such as ROARS (‘Return on Academic Research’) and the FLC-CGIL (the Federation of Knowledge Workers within the largest, more left wing of the three major Italian unions).

The background for the protest, in fact, is the coincidence of the (belated) introduction of a complex national research exercise with very deep and hurtful ‘austerity’ cuts which have produced a massive contraction of the Italian university system.

The figures spell Armageddon for the Italian Higher Education system: -20.5% of new students, -17% academic staff, -18% administrative staff,  -18% of degrees, -22.5 % in ‘ordinary funding’, the lowest percentage of spending on higher education in Europe, high fees and dwindling numbers of student grants. This contraction has operated along geopolitical lines as universities located in southern Italy (such as my own) have been disproportionatedly affected by the cuts.

‘Shameless professors’

As an associate professor in a small (southern) Italian university, I felt uncomfortable at first in joining a protest about fair pay for professors - given the abysmal financial treatment Italian universities (like many others) inflict on their casualized and precarious staff. As expected, while the deadline for the VQR gets closer, the first tweet to comment on the protest mentions ‘shameless professors’ asking for ‘pay rises’  when there are four million poor Italians.

And yet, the call to abstain from participating in the VQR has also inevitably acted as a catalyst for a number of grievances and criticisms which have been mounting in the Italian academic community. Such grievances and criticisms have found an outlet and a forum in ROARS – an informal interdisciplinary network formed in the aftermath of the latest neoliberal reform of the Italian University system (the so-called ‘Gelmini law’ opposed in 2008 by the largest student movement in Italy for the past twenty years) with the intention ‘to intervene with competence and credibility’ in a discussion interpellating politicians and policy makers.

ROARS’ editorial committee includes academics active in the fields of law, history, political economy, data analysis, physics and the arts. Operating through a website, a Facebook group, email and public seminars, the group has been relentless in its critique of evaluation procedures, policy, and media coverage of issues pertaining to the University. However, ROARS is only one (admittedly large) node in a social media milieu of blogs, facebook groups, mailing lists and websites which is covering the unfolding of the protest day-by-day (such as the number of participants, livestreaming of meetings, documents issues by assemblies and also reactions of the agency ANVUR which has already pushed back the deadline twice, many believe also as a result of the protest).

‘No evaluation without valorisation’

As the battle is getting ready to be played out in social and mainstream media in the next few weeks, it will probably be spun against those folkloric devils – the ‘University Barons’ (decimated by mass retirement themselves while those who still work have been ultimately empowered by the new system) – who are greedily asking for pay arrears (the difference between asking for arrears and having one’s pay level restored like the other public sector workers being a subtlety which will not easily make itself understood in the public and social media debate).

However, it will also be difficult to deny that the extent of the cuts makes all kinds of evaluation a joke: as the slogans put it, ‘no evaluation without valorisation’, ‘first respect, then assess’. How can you ask to judge the quality of a system while you are also subjecting it to the most massive disinvestment in the history of the Italian state?

If the whole purpose of the exercise is to decide which universities should be entitled to remain such (thus exercising both the function of teaching and research) and which ones will be degraded to all-teaching institutions, why should academics cooperate in their own demise?

As evaluation and austerity cuts have gone together, universities feel they are literally competing for survival and participation in an action that is never without pain. If the action does not succeed, lack of participation will directly affect funding, triggering an inevitable sense of guilt, fear and responsibility. The punishment will most likely materialize not only when negotiating promotions, but also as a loss of funding for teaching contracts and research funding including post-doc fellowships and new posts.

Not participating in the action, however, also bears its responsibilities and risks in as much as it will signal that academic staff continue to accept everything that is thrown at them. Television statements issued by the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to the effect that Italy does not need too many universities and that we will be much better off with just a few ‘centres of excellence’ while concentrating on national economic priorities such as tourism and food, also does not bode well. After all, as critics have pointed out, the 1.5 billion cuts to the public university system have already materialzed elsewhere – the same sum having been allocated to the Expo 2015 fair held in Milan last year.

‘Algorithmic regulation’ and a large number of losers

The internationalization of research careers has also made many of us well aware, that the purpose of evaluation is to control and direct academic work towards business-oriented forms of productivity – thus producing a new subjective figure of academic-administrator who earns her own salary and the university’s upkeep by chasing public grants and private sponsorships.

As Italian political theorist Valeria Pinto well put it in her Foucauldian account of assessment procedures – to evaluate is to punish. More specifically, research assessment exercises mobilise a whole technical and technological assemblage that is set to produce a kind of organizational automaticity. It seems to me to be a case of that process of ‘algorithmic regulation’ which, according to Evgeny Morozov, is coming to define the evolution of ‘data-based governance’ which for him spells the end of politics. The guidelines for the exercise issued by the controversial agency ANVUR explicitly refer to the necessity to produce a ‘standardizable and comparable database’ which can be used to make visible the state of research in Italy in any given year (there is also a yearly data gathering exercise known as SUA), but also, effectively, to calculate the portions of funding that should be allocated.

As funding for universities reaches dramatic lows, the research assessment exercise functions as a clumsy computational dispositif through which to implement an ‘economy’ of ‘allocation of (very) scarce resources to different ends’ with very few winners and a large number of losers. It is as part of this process of automatic governance that data is gathered and then measured, weighted, compared according to a number of parameters, indicators and weighings.

Lines of criticism

While some academics insist that these evaluation exercises are ultimately technologies of power which undermine the freedom of research, others are challenging such procedures on their own terrain, by contesting their scientific claims.

ROARS’ criticism of this model has aimed at debunking ‘the ideological use of mathematics’ as a means of intimidation (treating scholars in the humanities more harshly) suggesting that the evaluators themselves are out of touch with scholarship about evaluation. This is an effective line of criticism, but it also seems important to discuss not just the technical points, but the overall political drive and  model of automated, data-based modalities of assessment.

In the first place, we might consider that the current Italian model (as it appears from below, to those like me who are subjected to it) is characterized by strong centralization. The whole process is data driven but according to a model where end-users become data-entry operators unable to affect the determination of the criteria used to collect the data and constrained in their writing to the most codified of statements.

End-users, as many accounts of academics’ experiences of interfacing with the platforms confirm, are prisoners of rigid grids and of strict determinations which allow or forbid passage to the next level (coded as green and red). There is an enormous amount of ‘cut and copy’ work from old versions and wasted effort in duplication of data as the capacity to crosslink informational data sets is not implemented in many cases.

Arcane formulas appear in the documents issued by the national agency for research evaluation (the controversial ANVUR) which need mathematical competences to be decoded. A whole industry of consultants ready to help universities to match their submissions to the shifting requirements issued by ANVUR is also proving to be a further drain on already scarce resources.

Evaluations of these informatic reductions are performed by human agents acting in committees who are selected according to the procedures of a centralized administrative state. Subjective and objective elements (if this distinction can still hold) are mixed but the overall thrust goes beyond the inherent corruptibility of all human evaluations and methodological flaws in search of statistical methods of data collection.

This orientation is inevitably geared towards an increased productivity demanded of researchers and academics. What the whole system wants from us overall is simple: it wants more while paying less and to be able to determine what ‘the more that counts’ is; it wants to give a numerical value which determines the importance of different strands of research, in a kind of centralized, hierarchical, optimized control of knowledge production geared towards the proliferation of ranking tables and measurable growth – an increasing, paradoxical, expansive homeostasis running on decreasing resources and supposedly infinite energies and time.

Online tools

Much has been written, especially by contemporary Marxists, about the process of real subsumption of capital, how value today is not limited to the homogeneous quantitative measurement of the industrial working day, but is increasingly abstracted as the social production of value is turned into capital.

Research and education can be considered as part of this social production of value, resistant towards past knowledge and the existence of networks of relations and cooperative processes which enable new knowledge to be produced. Looking at the tables and equations littering the pages of the assessment documents I am institutionally obliged to pour over, I cannot help thinking that they display recognizable features: they seem ready for a sociological description (such as the popular Actor Network Theory framework) of the ways in which step by step, data entry by data entry, grid by grid the intangible and heterogeneous values of research can become countable and measurable.

As Italian academics have pointed out, in the end, we do not even need expensive national research exercises as we are already thoroughly implicated in the data politics of knowledge production through online tools and platforms such as Google Scholar,, databases such as Scopus, but also viewings on YouTube and such likes.  

In a recent special section of the journal Theory Culture and Society I co-edited, dedicated to the predicament of the European Union in the aftermath of the latest financial crisis, Italian-French economists such as Carlo Vercellone, Andrea Fumagalli and Stefano Lucarelli have argued that an economy based on knowledge requires a new form of welfare which is adequate to the new conditions – what they call ‘commonfare’ or ‘welfare of the common’.

Vercellone in particular argues that the old institutions of the welfare state cannot be simply considered as sites of reproduction – luxuries which economies can afford once they have produced a sizeable surplus and which can be cut when such a surplus is not available. Health, research, education, insurance and such likes for Vercellone are the new bases of production of ‘non-mercantile’ values and wealth (an ‘anthropogenetic model of the economy’).

Hence they do not claim a surplus produced elsewhere, but they constitute the basis out of which that surplus is generated. Scholars at the Manchester Business School are also arguing for the existence of something called ‘the foundational economy’ which includes education, health, food and even telecommunications, which they argue are foundational to human life and flourishing and mismanaged by the logic of competition[1].

Paul Mason’s popular notion of ‘post-capitalism’ also seems to signal a new mood and orientation. The evolution of higher education (but also national health systems, insurance etc) towards commonfare or a ‘foundational economy model’ should also be marked by a shift away from the rigid public/private dichotomy (in practice converging in neoliberal approaches to public management) towards processes of democratization which could also deploy some form of automation.

It is not by chance that the Italian Marxists mentioned above (who draw on the concepts and categories of Italian Autonomist Marxism) have also been involved in a recent EU-funded project called DCENT (‘Decentralised Citizens ENgagement Technologies’) which is crucially concerned with the democratic potential afforded by new technologies. 

If current data gathering exercises about academic research are inspired by a utilitarian philosophy which sees the value of knowledge as subordinated to the generation of economic value, is it possible to think about a different model? Would it be possible to make the data sets generated by evaluation exercises a Data Commons Project? Would it be possible to devise more flexible and adaptable software platforms which would allow for the introduction of parameters inconceivable for a centralized agency – parameters which could be invented?

Could the contributions of precarious workers (obliterated by the current system) be made visible in such a way as to support requests for fair pay and welfare support? Can evaluation become a p2p exercise in learning and change which is autonomously and cooperatively pursued rather than imposed centrally? Or is it doomed to be an alien stultifying intrusion on the social life of knowledge?

Just the beginning

The protest of Italian academics against the VQR is pitted against some big obstacles: the general mood of austerity, the rise of unemployment and poverty can be easily used to attack what seems to be the demands of a highly privileged category of public sector workers.

The whole process might just return to acquiescence once the demands for pay are resolved – even as rebellious academics claim that this is just the beginning. On the other hand, the questions posed by one of the first national initiatives against research assessment exercises will keep resonating.

In spite of more radical positions which denounce the complete complicity of such procedures with a larger system of control, it seems that many academics actually want to be evaluated. We should not be too quick to reject this demand as the reflex of a subjectivity which has been formed mostly by its capacity to perform at evaluations, the petty desire to be told that one is good.

I believe that in the demands of academics to be evaluated there is also a desire to unsettle the silos-like structure of Italian universities, where rigid internal hierarchies resting on a mass of precarious labor are matched by national hierarchies within strictly defined disciplinary enclosures.  

If most Italian academics, as they seem to do, want to be evaluated, then maybe it is then a question of asking how and under what conditions? Will imagination and democracy (rather than centrally imposed algorithmic regulation) be allowed to play a part in the game? What role should algorithms, data, software platforms, social media and such like play in a new model of higher education and research as a ‘foundational economy’ or ‘welfare of the common’?

[1] See, e.g., Bowman, Andrew, Julie Froud, Sukhdev Johal, John Law, Adam Leaver, Michael Moran, and Karel Williams, eds. 2014. The End of the Experiment? From Competition to the Foundational Economy. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

About the author

Tiziana Terranova is an Italian theorist and activist, whose work focuses on the effects of information technology on society through concepts such as digital labour and the commons. She lectures on digital media cultures and politics in the Department of Human and Social Sciences, at the University of Naples, 'L'Orientale' and is a member of the free university network Euronomade and of the Robin Hood Minor Asset Management Cooperative.

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