Italian Students March Against Education Law

A week ago, cars were sent on fire, shop windows smashed and dozens of people injured in clashes between protesters and police after the initially peaceful march descended into some of the worst violence seen in the city for years.

No trouble was reported on Wednesday in a rainy Rome, but there were some clashes at a demonstration in Palermo and reports of incidents in Naples, Milan and Turin.

The new law, which the government says will strengthen Italy’s crumbling university system but which critics say will merely cut funding without solving real problems, was discussed in the Senate on Wednesday with a final vote due by Thursday.

A delegation of students met President Giorgio Napolitano on Wednesday to voice their opposition to the law and urge him not to sign it.

In Rome, the march avoided a so-called “Red Zone” created by police blockades, instead occupying part of the A24 highway which runs east to the city of L’Aquila, whose residents have complained of broken government promises to clear up the damage from last year’s earthquake.

“You all alone in the Red Zone, us free in the city” read one mocking banner, addressed to the government ministries and parliament buildings in the historic centre.

With an official youth unemployment rate of about 25 percent in the country overall and as high as 35 percent in the poorer south, the battle over university reform has crystallised discontent over the future of Italy’s young people.

“We will certainly continue mobilising,” Rome student Claudio Rizzo told Reuters Television.

“It’s not only a mobilisation against university reforms but of a generation that is making itself heard again over the politics of the country, the issues we face and the precarious situation in which we live.”

DIGNITY AND USABILITY

Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini, who has piloted the new law through parliament, said the measures were urgently needed to equip Italian students for employment.

“It is essential to restore dignity and usability to Italian university degrees,” she said in an open letter to the newspaper Corriere della Sera.

The reform cuts the number of university courses and faculties and reduces funding for grants. It sets time limits for research, overhauls the admissions system, increases the role of the private sector in university governance and limits the duration of rectorships.

The government, under pressure to cut public debt, says spending cuts are necessary but the reform will create a more merit-based system which is closer to employers’ needs.

Supporters of the bill say Italy’s overcrowded universities produce too many social science graduates ill-fitted for employment and not enough qualified engineers or English speakers, and the system needs radical overhaul.

Critics, many of whom also support the principle of reforming the universities, say the system has been starved of funds and further cuts will seriously endanger Italy’s research capacity.

“We are asking for this bill to be blocked and for the whole public education system to be refinanced,” the Student Network, which groups different associations, said in a statement. Reuters