Language lecturers claim victory at Euro-court

December 5, 1997

Pisa. THE CAMPAIGN by foreign-language lecturers for the right to equal treatment at Italian universities moved forward another step with a judgment at the European Court of Justice last month.

The Luxembourg court ruled that Italian university regulations excluding "foreign-language assistants" from supply-teaching jobs do not in principle contravene Article 48 of the Maastricht Treaty, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace.

It thereby recognised the Italian government's right to reserve such vacancies for people who have tenure as established researchers and associate or full professors through the accepted national system of state exams.

But it also ruled that if appointment to supply-teaching jobs is shown to be open to other categories of staff who have not come through the system then this right is lost and discrimination has occurred. In this case the matter would have to be taken up again in the Italian courts.

This opens the way for three British lecturers to seek damages for having their supply-teaching applications annulled by the University of Verona.

The case was referred to the court by the Veneto regional administrative tribunal two years ago following accusations of discrimination by the lecturers.

David Petrie, one of the three and chairman of the Committee for the Defence of Foreign Lecturers, said: "I am delighted with the judgment, which also establishes that foreign lecturers are legally entitled to damages for past discrimination. Until 1994 they were explicitly excluded from participating in state exams on the grounds of nationality. Anyone who can prove this in an Italian court of law will be entitled to damages.

"It is absurd that three people with a total of 60 years' teaching experience and a wealth of publications and other academic qualifications should be excluded from applying for a teaching post on the grounds of nationality."

This final judgment overrode a ruling in March that said the language "assistants" were "a virtually self-defined discriminatory category" and that university regulations constituted unlawful covert discrimination against workers on nationality grounds.

Hugh McMahon, Labour MEP for Strathclyde West and social affairs and employment rapporteur, who has championed the cause of foreign-language lecturers' in Italy for five years, said: "This ruling is a moral victory for the three lecturers, who have been encouraged to seek damages in Italy. Their campaign for full recognition continues. I hope to discuss the matter soon with European commissioner Padraig Flynn to keep up the pressure."

A spokesperson for the Italian higher education ministry said that legal staff were still examining the judgment and were not yet prepared to comment.

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