The academic career of an Italian scholar affiliated in the UK: the experience of Claudio Maria Radaelli

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Claudio M. Radaelli is professor of political science and director of the Centre for European Governance at Exeter. He was awarded a Jean Monnet chair in political economy for the period 2014-2017.

Manuela Moschella kindly asked me to reflect on my experience and compare Italy and the UK. I must confess I know next to nothing about academic careers in Italy. The fact is that when I finished my five-year degree in economics and social sciences at Bocconi University, I was told it was foolish to try to become a political scientist because there were no openings in Italy. A mentor said, jokingly: “Until one of us dies there won’t be any position in political science, and, at least for the time being, we have no intention of passing away”. So for seven years I worked for research institutes (including Censis, where my boss was the inspirational Paolo Bellucci, now at the University of Siena) and the federation of Italian industry (Confindustria). True, I kept an honorary position of research fellow at Bocconi and published some articles, but I thought it would be impossible to start an academic career in political science. The fact that I was kind of changing route from economics to political science was yet another reason to abandon plans to become a professional political scientist: I felt I knew too little about parties, governments and political systems in general.

Seven years after my graduation at Bocconi, I realized that… you are bound to become what you already are! No matter how I rationally rejected the academic option, my heart and soul were pushing me into political science. At the age of 32 I decided to become more professional in my fascination with political science, and started a PhD at the Cesare Alfieri in Florence with Leonardo Morlino as supervisor. Incidentally, Leonardo has a special quality of finding potential where others would not have found anything, especially in mature students like me who seemed ‘lost’ for the cause of academia. However, towards the completion of my PhD I was offered a position of lecturer at Bradford University, hence I did not go through the usual post-doc / early researcher phase in Italy. Thus, I did not work in any Italian department of politics after the PhD – although I taught some classes at the University of Milan, where I had my mentor and intellectual guide Gloria Regonini – my other maestro was and is Bruno Dente, to whom I owe everything I am as professional social scientist. UNIMI is where I still have some of my best friends and academic colleagues today.

All this is to say that I cannot really compare the UK with Italy. But hopefully I can still say something useful to the readers. Let me first explain what I saw when I started working in the UK. Next, I will tell you which features of political science as career in the UK have changed during the last five years or so, because things have been changing fast indeed.

When I took up my first academic job at the University of Bradford, Department of European Studies, in September 1995 (so, note, this was a long time ago!), I was struck by the intellectual freedom I had in designing the content of the modules and in pursuing my research ideas. A lecturer was – and still is – a full citizen of the department. The department has some desiderata of course and the head of education makes clear where the teaching priorities are. But you develop the content of your teaching and your research agenda independently from what the big Profs in the department are doing or want to do. After 12 months I had my courses, my graduate students, my first grant …briefly, I was in full control of my teaching and research agenda. If I wanted the advice of the powerful political science chairs in the department, I was of course free to ask for it, and indeed I benefitted immensely from it. But this was mentoring rather than hierarchy.

Even more important, after years of listening to my friends in Italy talking about ‘research money starvation’, I was immersed in the ‘bonanza’ of research funding: ESRC, Nuffield Foundation, British Academy, British Council’s grants for bilateral cooperation with this or that country. There was so much that for three years I did not even think of going for the European funding schemes. By contrast, I heard that my Italian colleagues at that time had either the European Framework programme or some small funds made available by the CNR. Another important feature of my first three years in the UK: I was not asked to take on any administrative responsibility. My department told me to concentrate on research and teaching. On research, at that time there wasn’t even pressure to get a large amount of grants: my mentor at Bradford, Professor Kenneth Dyson, was genuinely impressed with the ESRC grant I got to carry out empirical research on international taxation right after my PhD completion. When I told him that the monetary value was limited, he responded: “you are expected to raise the amount of money that is appropriate for your research at this time and sufficient to publish in the best journals in the profession”. At Bradford we had a teaching term and a non-teaching term, which meant that I could do all my teaching between September and early January, and be free to dedicate all the other working weeks to my research projects.

At that time I also got intrigued by what I called, perhaps naively, ‘knowledge utilization’: unlike most colleagues, I thought of research and dissemination as one integrated process, and participated in several task forces and research groups put together by the research institutes (like Ceps in Brussels) or international institutions (e.g., Oecd and European Commission) and governments. To illustrate, Ceps ran two task forces on international and EU taxation that allowed me as rapporteur to meet regularly with some 30 policy-makers from the business community, the OECD and the Commission, once every six weeks approximately. I was sharing my research ideas with the members of the task force, and could use these influential people as sounding board. At the same time, this increased the policy relevance of my ideas and research.

Sounds good to you? Wait a minute. Things have changed. Well, all I said about individual freedom on teaching content and your full control of the research agenda is still valid today. But… there are a few important changes.

Teaching has become much more (in quantity) and more important (in quality) with students and their families investing up to 9000 pounds per year to go to university. If you teach a large year-1 or year-2 module, you may have more than 100 students, actually in some cases 200 or 300. This means you are given 2-3 even 4 graduate teaching fellows to help you: the consequence is that at the age of 26 you are already a manager of teaching fellows and have to learn on the road how to coordinate their work and their expectations. Good thing? Bad thing? I cannot tell, but it’s a responsibility I did not have in my early years at Bradford, where I was given small courses. Today we also teach to students from different continents, and this requires some understanding of cultures and expectations in cross-sections of students that are not homogeneous at all. I guess all social scientists like variation! But this variation requires preparation, respect and tact.

Another difference: nowadays, the new members of the profession are asked to take on administrative roles since their early days in the department. Some roles are OK-ish, others develop your professional skills greatly, but they are… heavy stuff! I have seen young colleagues moving from their jeans to a white shirt, suit and tie in four months, and going to the ‘executive’ meeting of this or that body of the Faculty with loads of bureaucratic paperwork. The consolation prize? Well, at least you become a big name in the Faculty administration at the age of 30!

Finally, the whole agenda of public engagement, dissemination and impact (of our research) has become prominent with the Research Excellence Exercise, and it is bound to increase its role in the next REF. In this 2014 REF, units of assessment (like Politics for us at Exeter) receive 65% of the funding for the publications, 15% for the vitality and sustainability of their environment, and 20% for impact in terms of reach and significance. Everyone says that the percentage and political significance of impact can only increase in the future.

Yes, everyone says we have that in the UK: you have to publish a lot. I disagree. The only question we ask in our departmental executive meetings to young colleagues (actually, to all colleagues) is to produce four internationally excellent publications every six years, for our Research Excellence Framework. If you publish 10 conventional, non-inspiring pieces in a year, for us the tally is ZERO, we only return to the REF four outputs for each member of staff. In exceptional cases, like a monograph on Machiavelli that took you years and years of work, we are allowed double counting, meaning that your Machiavelli will count for 2 of the 4 REF entries. To be clear: I am totally addicted to publishing, because this is where I build a conversation with my colleagues and a reputation, but my head of research only cares about whether I have the 4 REF entries or not. So, publish a lot if you like to see your name appearing in this or that journal, but in terms of your career quality is the thing to go for, not quantity. And remember that the REF Politics panel does not use metrics or lists of journals – in contrast with what some of my friends on the continent believe.

Make your choice wisely: if you pack your suitcase and join a department of politics here in Albion, be prepared to multitasking: teaching, administration, research, and impact are simultaneously on your screen. You have to watch them all, at the same time. University management has become more concentrated at the top than in the past. Departmental cultures like the one we had at Bradford – where we set our own expectations about funding, teaching and the publication/dissemination/engagement nexus – matter less in the hyper-concentrated faculties and in top management discussions. Across the country, the senior managers (from Deans upwards) are un-ambiguous in demanding research plans that also bring money to the university. And they want us to innovate substantially in teaching, covering the three terms with content (currently many universities teach in terms 1 and 2 only) with the ‘paying fees’ agenda.

Some years ago a friend of mine said to an Italian friend: “you want to know the difference? Well, here in the UK, universities are managed like a business. The university is business”. There are objective un-pleasant implications for certain (romantic?) ideas about working in academia, but overall this has more positive than negative implications. It makes us reflect on the costs and value of what we do – and impact is not only about making money, but about making our research count in the real world. It makes us as professional as people who work in a company or manage public policies. But consider the practical implications too. There are daily pressures: new members of staff are constantly nudged to put in an application for this or that scheme, and questions are raised if you have not prepared a serious, strong application in your first three years. Profs like me are bombarded by our research administrators with mails saying how good a new nation-wide research scheme is, and asked why are we not going for it? Some of us reason that the whole balance between input (research money) and output (publications) is getting lost. But you can still get decent buy-outs of teaching and administration if you bring research money.

One more thing: you are supposed to engage, disseminate and find out ways in which your research is likely to generate ‘impact’. As I said, I was personally fascinated by the whole knowledge utilisation thing! And yet, I realize that the pressure on new members of staff is objectively high, especially if they are not working in the field of comparative public policy. Colleagues in political theory or public opinion can fare well in engagement and dissemination, but to ‘prove impact’ is, for them, a tall order indeed.

If this is the state of academic affairs we live in, then, we ought to speak the truth to new colleagues, make sure that they understand the deal, and support their professional growth consistently – with an academic management that is oriented towards the researcher-as-client-of the-administrator, not oriented towards red tape. Training and academic mentoring of new members of staff are vital – the pressure is high, and it’s easy to see how young colleagues can get frustrated if they have to climb the mountain in solitude. And, also, as department we do help new members to modulate their efforts: if every year we get at least one big grant across Politics, there is less pressure on the new members of staff ‘to raise money’. Research centres like our interdisciplinary Centre for European Governance provide platforms to support collaborative research across disciplines, and can exploit research opportunities better than the classic ‘politics department’. Platforms like Q-step at Exeter bring in the capacity and infrastructure for new colleagues to work in a stimulating, cooperative research environment.

Conclusion: do you still want to pack and come to Britain (if so, be aware of some fundamental differences between Scottish universities and the others, I will tell you some other time) or stay at home in Italy? It depends on the kind of motivation you have. The English grass may look greener to political scientists of a certain ilk, but others may want to stay away from they see as ‘greedy new public management’ model. And by the way, the grass here is greener than in Italy, but because it always rains.

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