An undercover police officer enrolled as a law student to play a key role in a year-long investigation into an exams-for-cash racket at Rome's La Sapienza University. So far, 18 people have been arrested, including at least one lecturer, several assistant lecturers and researchers, administrative employees, students and a student's mother.
Police are focusing on suspected cases of law exams that were said to have been registered as "passed" in exchange for €1,000-€3,500 (£700-£2,500). Investigators discovered a code based on flowers, a "bunch of tulips" meant €1,500, a "bunch of roses" €3,000.
Police said the racket was masterminded by three administrative employees, and a number of academics were involved. They said the investigation was by no means over. About 100 other people, including faculty dean Carlo Angelici, whose secretary was arrested, received a "notification of guarantee", indicating they are officially under investigation although no charges have yet been brought.
The investigation, directed by the Rome prosecutor's office, involved tapping telephones and tailing suspects. Police conducted 35 searches of university offices and the homes of many of those said to be involved.
Some students received a list of questions they would be asked at their examinations, which, in Italy, are normally oral. Others simply pretended to talk to the examiner, usually an assistant lecturer, who then passed them. Bewildered students looked on as police emerged from the faculty armed with documents, while news photographers and TV crews door-stepped the building for hours on the day of the arrests.
"We are very upset," said a spokesperson for rector Giuseppe D'Ascenzo. "I hope everything is cleared up as soon as possible."
"In the past there were rumours about this kind of thing," said Giancarlo Giacomini, lecturer in political economics. "But, recently, I'd heard no more. In the past those involved were outside collaborators, never assistants and researchers."
Exam scandals have erupted at a number of Italian universities, but the involvement of La Sapienza - Europe's largest university with more than 150,000 students - is a serious setback for efforts to restore confidence in the system. Those arrested face prison sentences of between three and five years.