THE LATEST, and possibly worst, of a long history of corruption scandals is rocking the credibility of Europe's largest university, La Sapienza ("Knowledge") University with 180,000 students in Rome.
Investigating judges have denounced more than 70 people, mostly former students, but also some lecturers and administrative staff, for suspected involvement in buying and selling exam passes.
At least 600 exams are believed to have been bought and sold in the sociology department between 1983 and 1995. There are also rumours that some female students traded sexual services for passes in exams that they never took or failed, a suspicion which may be supported by the fact that two-thirds of the students involved are women.
The investigation began after a lecturer happened to see a number of students' exam certificates with his own signature forged to confirm passes. He informed the police and an investigating judge then ordered more than 600 suspect exam certificates to be examined.
Police found that ten students had bought 15 out of the 19 exams required for a sociology degree. On average, students had bought only four of the exams.
Degrees and exams in Italy have official legal standing. Besides the 70 charged with "corruption" and "fraud in a public act", another 30 students, suspected of similar frauds, have been identified but have not been formally accused.
Many have obtained posts in schools and the civil service using their degree. Among those suspected of having bought exams are several employees of La Sapienza itself, who obtained promotion.
Franco Ferrarotti, the father of Italian sociology who recently retired, said: "Poor things! To forge exams as easy as ours. I really do not know what to think any more."
Giuseppe D'Ascenzo, rector of La Sapienza, immediately declared that "if there are any officials of the university involved they will be immediately suspended". He added that the new computerisation of the exam certifications system "will put an end to any future temptation of fraud".
Sociology dean Gianni Statera remarked that "in a pachyderm like La Sapienza, which bureaucratically is practically unmanageable, controls are increasingly difficult. The checking of the curricula of 15,000 students (in the sociology department alone) is entrusted to six employees".
Cases of false exams at La Sapienza have cropped up with depressing regularity over the past decade, along with substantial evidence of a black market in pre-written, ready-to-use exam theses. Not a difficult scam when it is highly improbable that the same thesis will be examined by the same professor if it is re-used. One La Sapienza lecturer, who preferred to remain anonymous, commented: "This could be just the tip of an iceberg."