ITALY: Strikes delay start of academic year

The beginning of the Italian academic year has been delayed in dozens of universities as the ricercatori, or assistant professors, stage a series of protests throughout the country. An estimated 10,000 - around half - of the country's assistant professors are refusing to teach non-obligatory classes to protest against budget cuts and reforms currently under scrutiny in parliament.

From Turin and Venice in the North to Bologna, Siena, Rome, Naples, Cagliari and Palermo, the protest has caused postponement of several weeks and, in some faculties, of more than a month to the start of the academic year as external consultants are sought to fill the teaching gaps.

Assistant professors - entry-level academics - are employed technically to do research and fill ancillary teaching hours such as tutorials and seminars, yet they often end up doing many hours of teaching above and beyond their contractual obligations.

Significant cuts to research budgets, university funding and a freeze on automatic salary increments have left many assistant professors teaching virtually for free according to Alessandro Ferretti, spokesperson for the Assistant Professors Network, Rete29Aprile, who said the reforms would only worsen their situation.

"This bill means the end of permanent contracts for future assistant professors. They will have a three-year window to compete for an associate professorship, together with the great number of assistant professors who are already working on permanent contracts now, but if they are unsuccessful they must leave the university. It's an absurd situation, setting the stage for a war between the poorest of the poor," he said.

In an attempt to placate the protesting professors, the spokesperson for the government's education reform package, MP Paola Frasinetti, announced that 9,000 new associate professorships would be created over the next six years to allow more assistant professors to be absorbed into the academy.

The government is seeking to fast-track the reform package through parliament but a vote on it has been postponed while funding is sought for the extra positions. This will be no easy task, given the severe belt-tightening underway in Italian academies.

EUR279 million (US$387 million) was cut from the university sector in 2009, according to one of Italy's main education unions Federazione Lavoratori della Conoscenza (FLC-CGIL), a figure set to increase dramatically over the next two years, with cuts of more than EUR3 billion to university funding over the 2010-12 triennial according to the FLC-CGIL.

The union called a nationwide strike that began on 8 October with intermittent strike action foreseen until December.