Italy's association of consumer groups has filed an official complaint against La Sapienza University in Rome over irregularities in the running of exams. The complaint, made to the Rome prosecutor's office, alleges that examination commissions often do not include the quorum of academics required by law.
The Codacons, which coordinates consumer associations and defends citizens from bureaucratic malpractice, has charged La Sapienza with flouting the law that requires exam commissions to comprise at least the professor who teaches the specific subject, a professor of a related discipline and an official assistant. According to Codacons, much of the time no professore is present, and the exams are run by assistants of all kinds delegated by the absent professori who then sign the examination documents.
The Codacons has denounced the academic council of La Sapienza, composed of the 13 heads of faculty and Giorgio Tecce, the rector, for producing a directive in November 1996 which authorised the running of exams with no professori present. The minutes of the meeting, signed by the entire council, indicated that tolerating irregular exam commissions would ease the burden of exams in Europe's most crowded university, with almost 200,000 students.
The complaint included video evidence of recent exams at the university's law department, which has 40,000 students. Codacons has also asked that the exams concerned be declared void.
Flavio Manieri, a professor of psychology who is also a senior official of Codacons, said: "The academic council is trying to cover up irregularities to protect private interests. The idea is to have professors spend as little time as possible on tedious things like exams."
Professor Tecce did not deny that there may have been irregularities in some of the hundreds of exam sessions that take place each year, but expressed his respect for "all those professors who have made sacrifices to create a university for the masses but which political parties and parliament have not furnished with the necessary structures and personnel".
The dispute over the formation of exam commissions inevitably touches the issue of lecturer absenteeism. Under Italian law, they cannot be dismissed, demoted or otherwise disciplined. This principle was established after the second world war to protect academics from political pressures and to guarantee academic freedom. Many academics work full time and conscientiously, but many others, particularly in the professions, dedicate more time to private practice than to teaching or research.
The Codacons' complaint is clearly as much an attack on absenteeism as it is on exam commissions. "The absence of the professors at exams is much more frequent in fields connected to professions, like law, than it is in, say, chemistry or physics," Professor Manieri said. "Lawyers with a thriving practice are unwilling to spend hours and hours examining hundreds of students."