Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Students angered by Italian reforms By Duncan Kennedy

Students angered by Italian reforms

By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Rome

Students in Rome protest against education cuts (30/10/2008)
Protesters say the cuts will damage education in Italy

Sleeping bags in lecture theatres, lessons in parks, people wearing plasters on their faces.

They are just some of the ingredients in Italy's hugely divisive row over education.

The sleeping bags are being used by students, who have taken over a number of buildings.

Lessons in some places are being held in parks, as classrooms are occupied, and the plasters are the symbolic sign of the "cuts" the students and staff are protesting against.

But these are not just isolated protests by a few disgruntled hardliners.

A number of recent marches in Rome have attracted up to half a million demonstrators.

Seasoned Italian commentators say they are the biggest in 15 years.

The protests are not just for university students. Secondary school teachers and pupils are also on the streets, as their slice of the education budget comes under threat as well.

Hate figure

The government is pushing its reforms because it believes universities and schools are inefficient and producing lacklustre results.

It would be a disaster, not only for the immediate future, but 10 years from now
Prof Giancarlo Ruocco
The students, professors and teachers say cutting budgets across the board will make things worse.

In practice, the proposals include the loss of classroom assistants in schools - leaving the teacher to teach alone - and the freezing of recruitment at universities.

It could affect tens of thousands of lecturers and teachers.

The measures are handled by Italy's education minister, Mariastella Gelmini.

To the protesters, she has become something of a hate figure. Many of the banners on the marches name her in unflattering terms.

The minister and her supporters stand firm, arguing - with some justification - that Italy is one of the most poorly educated nations in Western Europe.

People protest in Rome's Piazza del Popolo against education cuts (30/10/2008)
Mariastella Gelmini has been ridiculed as 'Saint Ignorance' by protesters

For example, there is no Italian university in the top 150 universities of the world, according to the Italian department of education.

And this from the country that gave the world Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante and Marconi.

One government supporter told me: "Some university courses are useless. I know of several where there is just one student on the course".

He went on to give other examples of what he called the "utter waste" of university money.

"There is one university where the head has eight personal secretaries," he said. "The library has 135 librarians. It's ridiculous."

I asked him if some Italian universities should close.

"Yes", he replied.


Not surprisingly, the protesters have an alternative perspective.

Professor Giancarlo Ruocco, who lectures in physics at the University of Rome, says his department could lose 30% of its staff in three years if the full cuts go ahead.

Universities would become elitist and only attract rich kids
Laura, student

"It would be a disaster," he said, "not only for the immediate future, but 10 years from now when we no longer have researchers carrying out fundamental inquiries into pure science".

Prof Ruocco also cautioned that if the government reduced funds to the public universities or made their budgets performance-related, then Italy would end up privatising its university system.

"It would double my fees next year," says Laura, a second year student. "Universities would become elitist and only attract rich kids."

But many Italians are fed up with their failing education system.

The country has one of the highest drop-out rates in the developed world, with only half completing their degrees.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Brussels (07/11/2008)
The education crisis has further damaged Mr Berlusconi's popularity
Italian students also stay longer in college than others. It is not uncommon for graduates to be in their mid-to-late 20s by the time they look for their first job.

It means they have to compete with graduates from other countries who are five or six years younger.

The multi-billion-euro cuts in the pipeline would change the face of Italian education.

Some say they are long overdue, others that they are ill-conceived and designed to bail out Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's banking friends as part of the global financial mess.

The education crisis has played a part in denting Mr Berlusconi's popularity. That and his remark suggesting Barack Obama had a "nice suntan".

But with his strong parliamentary coalition, it is going to be hard for the opposition to stop the majority of the reforms being approved, even if a few are re-fashioned around the edges.

Yet the sleeping bags and plasters are not being put away yet and the cobbled streets of Rome and beyond are likely to be trodden again by the feet of these footsoldiers of protest.
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