Fight for doctorate blocked

August 14, 1998

A CALGARY researcher who is claiming unfair treatment by the Italian university authorities following a failed doctorate examination seven years ago is left with no apparent international recourse.

The case, which has gained the support of an increasing number of academics internationally, was set for consideration by Unesco and could have increased pressure for an investigation into Italian doctorates. But it has come to a full stop because there is no mechanism within Unesco to dispute the awarding of diplomas.

David Aliaga, a Chilean Canadian who enrolled at the University of Calabria in 1987 for an ethno-anthropology doctorate, claims he was victimised by the Italian national commission of examiners after reporting their failure to appear on the day originally set for his final examination in 1991.

When the examination was held by the same commission a fortnight later, Mr Aliaga's candidacy for a doctorate was rejected despite authoritative international appraisals.

Since returning to Canada, where he was subsequently forced to declare bankruptcy and claim unemployment benefit as a result of debts incurred in connection with his studies, Mr Aliaga has collected more than 3,000 signatures from international academics in support of his battle to obtain justice. But so far the Italian ministry, which refused to comment, has failed to respond to his letters or even to confirm the examination passes gained in the course of his studies.

Advanced education minister for Alberta, Clint Dunford, while saying his office does not want to interfere in the academic activities of another country, would like to see the case settled. Mr Dunford contacted Canada's commissioner to Unesco, who in turn last month put in a call to his Italian counterpart but has yet to receive a reply.

Russell King, now professor of European geography at the University of Sussex and one of the first to have expressed his indignation over the affair, described Mr Aliaga's case as "very serious and tragic" and his treatment as "little short of scandalous" in a letter to Tullio Tentori, then president of the Italian ethnological and anthropological association in 1992.

Mr Aliaga, who was jailed for two years by the Pinochet regime, said: "I would like to ask (Italian higher education minister) Luigi Berlinguer how many more years and signatures he requires. It took us 16 years in Chile to rid ourselves of Pinochet, but I never imagined it could take just as long to have my basic human rights upheld in Italy. My case has now become a crusade to bring the Italian university authorities to justice.

"There are countless similar cases in Italy which never see the light of day, as students soon learn that there can be stiff penalties for speaking out."

Mr Aliaga is campaigning for the introduction of an appeals process for students engaged in Italian doctorates in order to help establish fair standards. He is insisting on receiving his doctorate degree together with a ministerial apology and financial compensation for the years of psychological and economic hardship that he and his family have suffered as a consequence.

Two politicians from Calgary tried taking the case to Unesco ambassador Jacques Demers in Paris but he told them they had no recourse. This was later confirmed, according to the office of one of the politicians, federal MP Diane Ablonczy, by the Canadian Centre for International Credentials.

The Canadian Graduate Council is also calling for a better appeals process and improved communication between graduate students and the Italian government. Council chair Rubina Ramji said developing a high international standard for foreign students was the least a university could do since it benefitted from research conducted by the visiting scholars.

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