European Commission officials have denied a claim by the Italian higher education ministry that it is about to drop infringement proceedings against Italy over an issue concerning the country's 1,500 foreign-language lecturers.
The lecturers are claiming up to 18 years' discrimination by the Italian university authorities on the grounds of nationality.
In a circular late last year inviting rectors to provide formal assurances that lecturers' acquired rights were being fully respected, ministry head of staff Francesca Zannotti said that talks in Brussels had left the commission open to a final solution without recourse to the European Court of Justice.
"This impression was based on formal correspondence and informal discussions with the commission," she said.
But two commission officials, including a legal consultant to employment and social affairs commissioner Padraig Flynn, have dismissed the statement as "totally unfounded", insisting that "nothing could be further from the truth". European court action against Italy, they said, is firmly on course.
Professor Zannotti's recommendation that government lawyers should reject lecturers' pay claims have also been criticised as coercive and incompatible with the official ministerial policy of non-involvement in matters of single university autonomy.
A particularly hard line has been advised in the case of claims by the many lecturers who were forced to sign contracts, now widely believed to be illegal, under duress in order to avoid sackings. They have complained that the Italian government is now attempting to mislead the commission into believing that such contracts were signed freely.
Meanwhile, education undersecretary Luciano Guerzoni has defended plans that stop the lecturers from competing along with an estimated 3,500 graduate technicians in special examinations for tenured-researcher posts.
"I exclude a similar solution for the ex-lettori (lecturers) even in the future," he said. "Their case is simply not on our current agenda since it was resolved once and for all in 1995 following the European Court decision, when they were transformed by law into linguistic collaborators and experts. The main trouble is that a number of lettori were exploited when they were asked by their universities to carry out duties that did not fall within their proper competence."
John Gilbert, national coordinator of the SNUR-CGIL trade union for lettori, described the 1995 law as "inadequate and discriminatory". He said: "Our union has identified three non-negotiable points: teaching - not technician - status, fair pay, and recognition of acquired rights. If these points do not meet with approval, we will take appropriate industrial and legal action."