Italy's universities have come under fire from Luciano Violante, president of the chamber of deputies and a key political figure.
"The universities cannot just be machines that churn out exams and diplomas," he declared at a Turin University ceremony. Mr Violante blamed the academic establishment because the selection of lecturers "cannot be considered satisfactory - in too many cases it rewards those belonging to a political group or university clique, rather than competence".
In an unprecedented attack by the third most senior office-holder in Italy, Mr Violante said university reform must produce "transparent methods of selection which give priority to scientific preparation and competence in research" and "can recognise those who maintain a high standard".
University minister Luigi Berlinguer replied with a communique in which he acknowledged the criticism and admitted "it is evidently an urgent problem".
"The system is wrong and has progressively worsened its effects. The government proposed a radical reform a year ago. I hope the chamber of deputies, with the help of its president, will quickly approve the planned reforms."
Mr Violante and Professor Berlinguer both belong to the ex-communist Democratic Party of the Left, the largest party in the ruling centre-left coalition. The attack and response may therefore be seen as a joint effort to encourage parliament to approve the package of university reforms, many of them masterminded by Professor Berlinguer, and to neutralise political opposition.
Several academics agree that the selection of academics did not often produce the best person for the job. Giorgio De Rienzo, who teaches history of Italian literature at Turin, said that "over the past 15 years a class of lecturers has developed which is mediocre and lazy.
"Research, in 90 per cent of cases, is just a facade. Lecturers have formed a Mafia-like structure, scuttling research and hijacking funds for their own benefit. There is a law of silence," he said.
The day after Mr Violante's attack, the supreme court ruled that students who copy degree theses and present them as their own commit a crime and are liable to imprisonment. The ruling came after a medical student in Venice appealed through several courts against the rejection of his thesis on the grounds that other students had also worked on it.
This case itself was not that serious, given that in most universities it is well known that there is a black market in prefabricated theses, but the supreme court's ruling established an important principle.
According to Enrico Toro, a leader of Rome's union of students, "the ruling is excessive. "It is right to punish those who cheat. But the same penalties should be applied to the professors who hold group exams or entrust students to the assistants of the assistants. Professors also copy, and this is evident if you read their textbooks."