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Tempo of reform is rising

By Domenico Pacitti

Growing unrest among Italy's 1.75 million university students is producing fresh, if nor unanimously shared hopes of radical change to a system considered by many to be seriously outmoded. An exceptionally high turnout at recent student council elections resulted in a swing to the right in opposition to Italy's left coalition, with its high number of professor politicians.

Student protests have tended to centre on poor study facilities and canteens, fee increases, access to computers and fax machines, heating and, more recently, limited entry to some higher education courses, while issues commonly regarded as not subject for discussion included full recognition of the student's central role as paying customer, greater checks on professional and administrative standards, and serious efforts to eliminate absenteeism, favouritism and corruption. Tackling these is beginning to be seen as legitimate.

Paolo Maddaloni, 24, a fifth-year law student at the 50,000-student University of Pisa, was recently elected representative to the academic senate. He says: "The Italian university is not a centre for teaching and research, but rather a system of power and privilege for professors and administrators."

Maddaloni claims that university lecturers are the only class of civil servants in Italy who are allowed a second job, and that professors spend too much time on their other work and not on their students. "Students feel they are treated like property in a feudal system, and the situation is getting even worse," he says. "By the time we graduate we are too old to compete for jobs within the EU. It is true that many colleagues don't see the seriousness of the situation, but once they do - and it's only a matter of time - there will be a rebellion."

Paola Sannino, 28, a student representative of the 23,000-student University of Trieste, says: "Our universities exist not for the students - who count for nothing, who are simply an irritating encumbrance and are abandoned to their own devices - but rather for the convenience of our professors, many of whom we don't even see from one year to the next, except at exams."

"It took a year spent at a German university for me to open my eyes to the truth and realise Italian students deserve a far better deal. As a first step, students must learn their rights and insist on having them implemented. Professors who work well should be rewarded, and those who don't  should be penalised. The present policy of unsackability should be abolished. The trouble is that our universities are a law unto themselves and are not subject to external controls."

"Publicity and the encouragement of as many Italian students as possible to go on study trips abroad, so they can compare systems and perceive the hard truths, are the key to a solution. It is false patriotism for Italians to criticise the system's critics. In a desperate situation like ours, criticism can only be constructive."

But other students, who insisted on withholding their surnames, remain sceptical of change.

Davide, 20, a statistics student at Palermo (56,000 students), feels that protest groups never achieve any results. "Individualism is what matters. My sister took part in a strike a few years ago. She obtained nothing and lost precious time in completing her degree. You can't argue with professors: they're the ones who call the tune. You run the risk of paying dearly for it at the exams."

Luca, 28, an economics student at Rome's La Sapienza university (the largest in Europe, with more than 180,000 students), says: "It's part of our culture: nobody really believes things can change. There are also professors who work in difficult conditions. if they can do nothing about it, what chance do we have?"

Cesare, 29, a science student at the University of Bari (76,000 students), says: "Earlier this month, our entire academic senate was placed under police investigation in connection with favouring student admission to restricted entry courses. It is often said that these problems exist only in the south of Italy, but it's not true. A few weeks ago, a prosecutor in Milan asked for more than 20  professors at the university, including the rector, to be sent for trial on fraud charges."

Other complaints include unauthorised use of student theses at conferences, and even their straight plagiarism for the speedy accumulation of publications. But most publicity has been given to the allegedly widespread problem of sexual harassment.

It appears that students, out of a sense of shame, guilt, or fear of reprisals, often prefer not to complain, and it is sometimes alleged such situations are exploited by attractive female students, who are assured high marks at exams by turning up with plunging necklines or daringly short mini-skirts.

But the police emphasise that even anonymous, preferably written, complaints will be investigated, provided they appear genuine.

The gradually increasing number of professors willing to speak out against the system is helping to raise student morale. Marcello Pera, a centre-right professor-politician, spoke 18 months ago of Italy's "corrupt fourth-grade system" as having "infected the entire country". Others have taken to publishing books listing misdeeds and naming names - something that would have been unthinkable in Italy not so long ago.

Note: This article first appeared in The Guardian on May 27 1997.