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Alien nations

By Domenico Pacitti

Some 450 Britons are among the 1,500 foreign language lecturers – lettori – who are claiming up to 18 years of maltreatment by the Italian university authorities. Grossly inferior contracts to those of their Italian colleagues, abysmally low salaries and the intimidation of those brave enough to demand their legal rights – to the point that many have already been invited to leave the country – have led to extensive national court action by the lecturers. They are claiming racial discrimination, financial exploitation and psychological harassment.

Persistent complaints by lecturers' representatives to the European Commission have now brought the Italian state before the European Court of Justice for a record third time over the same issue, with a final verdict due next spring. But there is much scepticism. Italy's response to 1989 and 1993 European rulings, which upheld claims of wholesale discrimination, was to concede permanent contracts while at the same time introducing a new national law downgrading the lecturers to non-teaching staff.

Individual rectors then ordered the immediate reduction of all lecturers' teaching and administrative duties in order to bring them into Procrustean line with the new legislation. Their aim was to counter claims that they were de facto autonomous teachers who singlehandedly run language and literature courses and conducted exams.

Following the mass sackings of 200 lecturers who refused to sign the new contract, in February last year a delegation from the Italian state told the European Parliament in Brussels that no such sackings or discrimination had taken place.

The choice of rectors' representative in the Brussels delegation – Adriano Rossi, rector of the Orientale University in Naples – caused an outcry. He had been widely criticised for his alleged persecutory conduct towards an Afghani lecturer in his own department who refused to sign the new contract.

It had been alleged that Rossi, a full professor of Iranian languages, lacked the knowledge to teach the subject himself and had for 15 years been wholly dependent on the lecturer's work. The case is considered fairly typical of language faculties in Italian universities generally.

Last month over 600 lecturers served notice on their rectors that they would now sue for further damages in view of Italy's continuing failure to implement European decisions. A week later, on August 7 1998, higher education minister Luigi Berlinguer issued a circular to all rectors, calling for their urgent assurance that lecturers' contracts were in compliance with national law. Some see the letter as the first step in an attempt to persuade the Commission to drop court action.

Hugh McMahon, Euro-MP for Strathclyde West and a long-standing supporter of the lecturers' battle for justice, said on September 3: “I am pleased that the British Labour government is taking this matter up with the Italian authorities and the European Commission. For almost a decade, Italy's universities have breached both the letter and spirit of freedom of movement. If the completion of the internal market is to be a reality and not a mirage, the Italians must obey European Court judgments and offer parity to the lettori.”

Paul Hyde, a talented writer who left Britain in 1986 with degrees in philosophy and English from Edinburgh University and a deep desire to teach his language and culture to Italians, has been forced to return home penniless, embittered and over £5,000 in legal debt after 10 years of work at the University of Verona in northern Italy.

Hyde, an Irishman and father of two, whose poetry and history courses were among the most popular in Verona, was soon struck by certain facts.

“I remember the embarrassing subservience of students with their lack of critical capacity, the unending flow of exams disrupting our teaching and the total absence of campus life. Italian colleagues were a rare sight at our English department and virtually all the work was left to the foreign language lecturers.”

His first shock was when he and five colleagues were sacked three years later by a newly appointed professor. He was reinstated and awarded damages when the local labour court ruled that the dismissals were unfair.

When the university refused to settle, the lecturers were told by a professor of international law in Milan that the best chance of a timely solution was through the Mafia or the Vatican rather than the courts. “Later three judges overturned our labour court decision, unaccountably denying facts which had been witnessed and proven or that I had ever taught and examined students at all.”

A professor he caught fiddling exam results told him it would be in his interests to leave the country. And when he reported to local magistrates the practice of extorting bribes from students, police investigations were quickly shelved. His salary was halved and he had to give up his flat and stay with friends. Hyde later began to make trips with colleagues to Strasbourg in order to inform Euro-MPs of the range of malpractices. “It takes some effort to get across to outsiders just how degenerate these institutions are, and how appalling the situation is.” He now has 14 court cases pending, all related to claims for basic rights.

Two years ago he was one of 23 lecturers sacked by Verona's rector for refusing to sign a contract downgrading their status to that of laboratory technicians: “The rector made us a classic Godfather offer – we could have our jobs back if we gave up all our legal rights in return, including the right to defend ourselves.” They turned down the offer.

Note: This article first appeared in The Guardian on September 15 1998.