Italian tax investigators have issued fines to more than 400 academics at the start of a huge crackdown on academics who do outside work, amid fears they are neglecting their teaching.
The move is the latest legal action by the authorities to try to fix dysfunctions in a system plagued by underfunding and the widespread emigration of researchers.
One hundred and seventy two professors will have to repay €42 million (£37.1 million), the Milanese newspaper Corriere Della Sera has calculated, an average fine of €250,000 each.
Investigators checked records of working hours to find those academics who failed to devote enough time to activities such as teaching, research and examinations as stipulated in their contracts, according to Italian press reports.
They argue that full-time contracted professors must work exclusively for the university, barring exceptional circumstances, which must be authorised.
But Ferruccio Resta, rector of the Polytechnic University of Milan, where some academics have reportedly been sanctioned, said that the law was “quite clear” that “collaboration activities and external work are permitted”.
“The intent of the law is to encourage the creation of a tighter bond between academia and the economic system as a whole,” he said in a statement to Times Higher Education.
“It is obvious that if professors do not comply with their expected teaching and research obligations, they must be sanctioned,” he added. “But all these activities are constantly monitored by the university administration.”
The clampdown follows several high-profile cases where academics have been issued eye-watering fines for outside work. Marco Baldoni, a dentist, was last year ordered to pay back close to €4.5 million for running a private practice at the same time as working as a hospital dentist and as a full-time professor of dentistry at the University of Milan-Bicocca, according to reports.
An architecture professor at the University of Genoa, Marco Casamonti, was reportedly fined nearly €689,000 last year for being absent from lessons – and getting assistants to stand in for him during exams.
The tax authorities have targeted academics from across the whole of Italy, although the heaviest hit region is Lombardy, where 60 face fines, according to Corriere Della Sera. Academics at several well-known universities have been targeted, including the Polytechnic University of Turin, which did not respond to a request for comment.
So far, investigators have focused on academics in engineering, architecture and chemistry departments. Next, they will turn their attention to economics, medicine and law faculties, potentially netting scholars who work as consultants to companies, according to the newspaper. They expect the total fines issued to double in value.