Italian university students took to the streets twice this month to protest against legislation limiting the number of students who can enrol in certain faculties.
The target of the protest was university minister Luigi Berlinguer, considered a man of the political left and as such seen as a traitor to the principle of free access to university for all secondary school graduates.
Mr Berlinguer has said that admissions should be linked to the demands of the job market.
Student organisations staged protests in cities all over Italy on October 18 and again, on a larger scale, on October 25. In Rome police planned out the courses of two separate demonstrations, one for left-wing groups and the other for right-wing, to prevent clashes.
According to a 1969 law, passed following the 1968 student movement unrest, anyone with a secondary school Maturita diploma can sign up for any faculty in the Italian state university system. Also, Italy's 1948 constitution guarantees, in general terms, the "right to education".
In 1989, however, universities were allowed to set an admissions quota for particular courses. This directive was applied by some universities, but in the majority of cases rejected students appealed to regional courts, which on the basis of the 1969 law supported the students' claims to admission.
Mr Berlinguer, university minister since April, recently described the old directive as obsolete, and has drawn up legislation to go before parliament that would firmly establish the right of each university to "programme" admissions.
Student organisations, particularly those of the left, see this as a move towards elitism in higher education, and a blow against the open admissions principle. They also protested against a steady increase in university fees, which today range from about Pounds 350-Pounds 500 a year, with rebates for poor families.
Francesco Pierri, president of the left-wing Unione degli Universitari, the largest student group, said: "Programming admissions on the basis of a hypothetical demand by the job market infringes the right of every individual to choose his or her field of study and career.
"But we are also calling for more financial support for students. Italy only provides 43,000 scholarships a year, compared to 500,000 in Germany and a European average of 180,000. Those provided are of only 6 million lire (Pounds 2,450) for students away from home and 3.5 million for those living at home. This has as much to do with every young Italian's right to a higher education as the question of limited admittance."
The fields in which admission applications far outstrip the places available are medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, architecture, and in some universities engineering, political science and literature and philosophy.
The 1989 directive lists medicine, dentistry, biotechnology, agriculture, architecture, economics and communications as the fields in which universities are allowed to select students through tests.
A spokeswoman for the university ministry suggested that the wave of protest is unjustified bec ause Italy's birthrate is so low that the university population will in any case decline over the next decade. Last year the student population grew slightly, but new enrolments fell for the second year running and are expected to fall again this academic year.
Student activists are a tiny minority of Italy's student population, she said. The largest group, the Unione degli Universitari, would not reveal its membership but said that "for next year we are aiming to reach 10,000".