Students threaten protests over fee hikes for late finishers

Student groups are threatening protest action after the Italian parliament backed a law on 7 August that gives universities the power to raise the fees of students who are taking too long to complete their studies.

Students unions have called the law an outrage, and have accused the government of using fee increases to cover public funding shortfalls.

The family income-tested fee increases will apply to nearly one in three Italian students, who fall into the large group of fuoricorso – students who fail to complete their studies within a given time limit.

Union of University Students coordinator Michele Orezzi said: “Once again the public university is being violated…It is a grave attack on students that we will not let go by. We are ready for action, ready for an explosive autumn. We are ready for anything to defend our rights.”

Orezzi said the union was prepared to challenge the law in Italy’s constitutional court, arguing that it breaches guaranteed Italian rights in a way that “patently violates our right to study”.

As the formal parliamentary vote approached, Education Minister Francesco Profumo, the former rector of Politecnico di Torino, argued with student leaders over the law.

In a speech late last month, he described fuoricorso students as a problem that was cultural, deriving from a lack of respect for deadlines and rules, and that also placed a burden on the state.

These comments fuelled student anger and Orezzi condemned the portrayal of late finishers as lazy stragglers.

“We don’t need labels but solutions to the problem from this technocrat government. Why don’t they attempt to understand why students are taking too much time to complete their courses? Why use them as a reason to justify the thinly veiled liberalisation of tuition fees?

“Almost 50% of students in Italy work to pay for their studies, because Italy is the European country that invests the least in study grants. This is the real problem, and it is absolutely not a cultural one.”

Orezzi said: “The government has declared war on all university students, who are ready to react. We will not accept the umpteenth and unjustifiable increase in fees.

"Everyone from politicians to rectors in the academic world must decide who they want to stand with: for a public university or for its barbaric killing. We are more than ever determined, and we will carry out our protest in every faculty in every city.”

Profumo defended the measures in a national radio interview, saying that any increase in fees would be proportional to income, and in 90% of cases it would be only as much as the cost of a coffee a day.

He said the measure was squarely aimed at those who delayed the completion of their studies without good reason.

“Citizens must learn from the education system that there are deadlines that must be respected,” he said. “The costs for the country of not completing something or of delaying it are enormous and they have influenced our national debt significantly.”

The new fee measures are part of a the austerity measures brought in by the current technocrat government to bring public debt under control.

University funding has become a pressing issue, with cuts to public spending totalling millions of euro over the past three years. This funding gap has been accompanied by a gradual increase in fees.

While the previous law had fixed student fees at a maximum 20% of total course costs, many universities are in reality charging well over this limit.

Fuoricorso students from higher family income brackets will particularly feel the pinch of the new fees.

They are family income tested, and it will be at the discretion of each university to administer them, with an increase of 25% possible for a family income under €90,000 (US$110,000), an increase of 50% for family incomes between €90,000 and €150,000, and a doubling of fees for family incomes over €150,000.

Universities are, however, obliged to devolve 50% of the additional revenue generated to study grants and the other 50% must be spent on university services.

Students who work are being granted certain flexible provisions and fees are being frozen until 2016 for students who have a family income of less than €40,000.