The Italian government has succeeded in passing its so-called “reform” of universities despite massive student protests (30 November).
But as the measure now goes to the Senate, this is not the end of the campaign.
In Rome, a massive sit-in outside the parliament building was met with such heavy policing that the leader of Italy’s most prominent left party compared it to Pinochet’s Chile.
Over fifty thousand students demonstrated in the capital. Some blocked railway lines out of Rome for several hours, as did students in Pisa. Elsewhere in the country small station occupations disrupted hundreds of train services. In Turin the ring-road was occupied for two and a half hours, in Bologna a motorway was occupied and in Lecce students took over the city’s Roman amphitheatre.
Many universities also saw local occupations: in Bari the politics and law faculty was taken over by three hundred students. A group of Italian Erasmus students in Paris hung a protest banner from the Arc de Triomphe.
These latest protests follow a day of demonstrations last week, including occupations of the Colosseum and the leaning tower of Pisa.
The Gelmini “reform”, named for the education minister responsible, is accompanied by huge cuts to university funding. The official figures put these at €276m, but the education union CGIL reckons the real impact will be closer to €1.1bn. Private universities — among them those run by the Catholic church — are the exception. Plans to cut their funding were overturned, and instead they’re getting an extra €25m from the state.
This is despite the fact that private colleges charge significantly higher fees, making them inaccessible to many students. In Milan, for example, the Catholic University, whose principal is a leading spokesman for the private institutions, charges even its poorest students (fees are means-tested) on its cheapest courses €2400 a year. So no surprise that students protesting in Milan launched eggs and firecrackers at it as they marched past!
Although there is no doubt that Italian universities need reform — not least a crackdown on the notorious patronage system that dominates university appointments — the Gelmini plan represents a fundamental attack on the public education system.
It will allow external representatives on governing bodies (for which read bankers/businessmen/ Berlusconi’s cronies: there is no requirement that they be elected). It will give a funding premium to “top” universities at the expense of others and introduce performance-related pay for professors and researchers. And it will still leave most entrants to lecturing roles on temporary contracts for fifteen years!
While the reform has yet to be enforced, in practice the accompanying cuts are already biting. New restrictions have been placed on student numbers, especially for prestigious courses like medicine, law and engineering. Recruitment is at a virtual standstill and university canteens — traditionally a source of cheap or even free lunches for students, compensating for minimal bursary provision — have been forced to raise prices.