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Austria, Italy and Spain have newly appointed, or re-appointed, ministers responsible for education. And by no means is all calm waters from academia to ministerial seats. Some of the stir stems from suspected politically driven reshaping of ministerial portfolios or concerns over universities’ autonomy. And while the education and research portfolios have seen a merger at EU-level, not all of the above member states are moving in the same direction.
Austria’s semi-new government led again by the Austrian People’s Party - in coalition with the Green Party this time – put the same person at the helm of the Ministry of Education: Heinz Fassmann, who was incumbent from December 2017 to June 2019. Although the “new” government has promised to secure more funding and support for universities, concerns arise regarding universities’ autonomy and decision-making power as the government announced major reforms in higher education. These include the appointment of its political supporters to university boards as well as a push for more efficiency in universities through professionalisation of management structures.
In Italy, the minister is as new as the ministry – the result of a recent split into the ministry for schools and the ministry for universities and research. This comes in addition to the resignation of the previous office-holder Lorenzo Fioramonti due to no increase for education in the 2020 budget which was promised. The appointment of Gaetano Manfredi, rector of the University of Naples Federico II and President of Italy’s rectors’ conference, as the new Minister for Universities and Research has received mixed reception from the sector. While the new portfolio dedicated to universities and research has had favourable reactions by Italian pro-reform scientists, controversies surround the new minister’s affiliation to the government as well as his alleged support for exclusive professorships schemes and for “class-based” university funding. Higher education actors fear perpetuation of the long-standing “oligarchy” in academia instead of much-needed reforms.
Another ministerial split: Spain’s new government has divided the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities into two, a move not welcomed by most relevant academic bodies in the country. Pedro Duque remains the Minister of Science and Innovation while the sociologist Manuel Castells will serve as the Minister of Universities. Professor Castells had spent over 20 years in the University of California, Berkeley before moving to teach at the University of Southern California, Annenberg. He is world-famous for his concept of the network society and the influences of networked structures and affiliations in shaping the contemporary, globalised society. As reported, Castells also strongly opposed the ministerial split between universities and science, but noted that “there are two ministries, but one single project”.