The European Commission is being called upon to take further action against Italy after 1,500 foreign-language teaching staff were excluded from the National University Council elections due to be held next month.
The elections are otherwise open to all university teaching and non-teaching staff as well as to students.
A formal complaint together with the request for urgent intervention under Article 48 of the Maastricht Treaty, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace, was forwarded this month to the Commission by the Committee for the Defence of Foreign Lecturers, now a legally recognised trade union.
Neither Bruno Civello, director of the higher education ministry's department for university autonomy, nor Fernando Gentillini, first secretary of the Italian permanent mission to the EU, were prepared to comment. But in a circular to university rectors Mr Civello confirmed the exclusion on the basis of 1995 legislation, which, he said, "expressly denies full staff status and hence voting rights to mother-tongue language assistants with foreign degrees".
Meanwhile the European Commission, which uses the term "foreign-language lecturers", has already confirmed that the council elections are in breach of regulations. It has also confirmed that the next phase of the infringement proceedings will probably be before the European Court of Justice by early December.
Over the past eight years the ECJ has ruled against Italy on the lettori question three times over breaches of human rights. It is the only EU country ever to have been so condemned.
Grazia Morra, an administrative councillor at the University of Padua and candidate at the NUC elections, has written an open letter of complaint to higher education minister Luigi Berlinguer. "Depriving the foreign-language lecturers of their lawful representation is a particularly serious form of discrimination," she said. "It is also a clear signal that the Italian state is out of tune with Europe. The next step is to seek the invalidation of these elections."
Committee chairman David Petrie, sacked without pay following a local labour court decision last month, together with 22 colleagues from the University of Verona and 31 from Bologna, is now well into the second decade of his battle with the Italian university authorities. He said: "I have been informed by an Italian professor of EU law that solutions are much quicker in Italy for those who have the right connections in the Mafia or the Roman Catholic Church. I prefer to put my faith in EU law."