Demonstrations over higher ed spread in Italy
Demonstrations by students and researchers throughout Italy this past week were a response to a bill introduced by the education minister that proposes one of the most far-reaching overhauls of Italian higher education in recent years.
The New York Times
ROME — A group of students broke into the hall of the Italian Senate here last week, while other students occupied the Colosseum. In Pisa, students blocked a runway at the airport. In Palermo, they sat on the railroad tracks. In Florence and Milan, they clashed with police, while at a dozen universities researchers have protested by spending nights in sleeping bags on the roofs of university buildings.
The demonstrations were a response to a bill introduced by the education minister that proposes one of the most far-reaching overhauls of Italian higher education in recent years. The minister, Maria Stella Gelmini, wants to reorganize how universities are governed and the country's system for recruiting university professors. Gelmini is also seeking to change the way financing is allocated, by forcing universities that are running deficits to close and by rewarding meritorious institutions.
The demonstrators have also been protesting sharp budget cuts throughout the government imposed by Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti.
When classes began this fall, researchers — who make up about 40 percent of the teaching staff — abandoned their lecterns in protest of the legislation. They said the overhaul would essentially dismantle public universities.
As a result, many courses usually listed in university curriculums were not offered. Many other courses began weeks late.
Overcrowding is common at dozens of universities. The average student-teacher ratio at Italian universities is 19.5, compared with an average of 15.4 students per teacher in other European Union countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
"I am aware that we are causing major inconveniences to our students," said Alessandro Ferretti, a coordinator of the researchers' association at the University of Turin.
Technically, the researchers are not on strike, Ferretti said, because their contracts do not require them to teach. "We teach because we want to, but if this law doesn't change, the second semester will just never happen," he said.
Gelmini, the education minister, has said that she thinks that her proposed overhaul will ultimately streamline the country's costly university system, eliminating useless degrees and shutting down many of the tiny postsecondary institutions that have been created in recent years.
But under the overhaul, researchers who might be appointed to replace retiring professors would be able to maintain their status for a maximum of eight years, and critics say this would make their positions precarious.
"What is at stake here is the very existence of Italian universities," said Alberto Civica, an official with a labor union known as the UIL, which represents about 500 researchers and 300 professors. "And all that this reform does is ignore the real problems of our universities."
Previous attempts to revamp higher education here have been equally ineffective, he said.
If anything, critics say, the myriad bills approved in recent years to improve postsecondary education have made things worse.
From 1990 to 2006, there were 1,371 new laws, bills, ministry decrees and internal rules applying to Italian universities, according to statistics from the Education Ministry compiled by Alessandro Monti, a professor of economic policies and university legislation at the University of Camerino.
The result is a system that forces students to juggle their education amid ever-changing rules, according to many students.
For example, a 1999 overhaul that introduced a division between a three-year bachelor's degree and a two-year master's degree (intended to make Italian degrees equal to those of other countries in the European Union) prompted a proliferation of degrees and a recruitment of new professors, often hired on short-term contracts. Some universities offered 12 different degrees within the same field.
"It is a Kafkaesque situation," said Monti, who published a book in 2007 titled "Investigation on the Decline of the Italian University." "There is no money, far too many courses, far too many directives and zero control over their application," he said. "But what I fear the most is the disqualification of our universities."
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