The Italian higher education ministry has responded to growing international criticism of its treatment of foreign language lecturers in its universities.
The official report on the professional status and terms of employment of the lettori follows the failure of top-level talks in Brussels to resolve the issue and constitutes a formal reply to the European Commission, which has given Italy until June to agree with its solution or face prosecution.
The report, by Bruno Civello, director of the ministry's department for university autonomy, rejects lecturers' demands for status equivalent to fully tenured teaching staff on the grounds that Italy's scrupulously regulated public exam system gives sole access to the three basic levels of researcher, associate professor and professor. Lecturers are employed through a simpler selection procedure, governed by private law, which does not assess academic competence and publications but only suitability to the role of language assistant.
The ministry denies discrimination against the lecturers. Fifty-one professors and 112 researchers are said to have come from the ranks of foreign-language lecturers. It claims the commission's recourse to Article 48, on free movement of workers within the EU, against Italy is thus unfounded. Giving the lecturers tenured status without putting them through the exam system, the ministry argues, would be discrimination against those who spend many years attempting to achieve such status through the normal channels.
The downgrading of the lecturer role is seen by many as being due to the controversial selection procedure which lecturers were obliged to undergo in order to keep their jobs. But it is legitimated by the ministry as having been necessary to confirm qualifications and professional standards. The ministry says future sackings would be justified by financial cutbacks.
Daniela Salmini, advocate for the Italian state and head of the government's negotiating agency Aran, said: "Although some ex-lettori have substituted for tenured staff, that does not mean they have acquired tenure. While it is true that in the 1980s a number of tenured staff were taken on without taking state exams, this proves to have been an unfortunate error which must not be repeated."
David Petrie, chairman of the Committee for the Defence of Foreign Lecturers, said: "In a last-ditch attempt to save the state some money, the ministry has produced a nine-page report which, through a barrage of linguistic subterfuge, attempts to circumvent and thwart European law. What they say is based on the preposterous hypothesis that this legal headache arose because the British mistranslated the word lettore into lecturer."