Foreign language teachers in Italy's state universities are in uproar over a proposed national employment contract which they consider humiliating and discriminatory.
The nationwide protest by about 1,600 teachers is their latest attempt to obtain contracts comparable to those of associate professors. The campaign has reached the European Court of Justice, which has repeatedly criticised Italy's treatment of its language teachers.
The national contract offers the equivalent of Pounds 8,000 a year gross, (about Pounds 6,000 net), tenure and a pension, for 500 hours teaching a year. Two years ago some universities had implemented much better interim contracts, close to terms enjoyed by professori, the junior associate professors, pending a permanent national contract. The teachers had hoped the new agreement would be based on these temporary deals, and were furious when the government offered more hours for less money.
About 90 per cent of the language teachers, called lettori, are foreigners, many from European Union countries. Some see their employment conditions as discrimination against foreigners.
"The point is that we do not simply teach a foreign language," said Gael Ayers, 34, a language teacher from Birmingham who teaches English in Rome. "We are deeply involved in the many facets of applied linguistics, we are not just teaching basic English. We sit on examining commissions just like the professors, and our workload is comparable to, if not greater than, that of many professors." Under the new contract the lettori would be classed with administrative staff, laboratory technicians, and so on as non-teaching personnel and therefore denied the type of pay, seniority benefits and job security enjoyed by professors, associate professors and researchers.
David Petrie, a Scot who teaches English at Verona University, is a leader of the protest movement and through lobbying has enlisted the support of several members of the European Parliament. "The EU says that people doing the same type and amount of work should be employed under similar conditions," he said.
Professori enjoy job security, academic freedom and substantial salaries. So it is not surprising that the lettori should be dissatisfied with their lot. They were first taken into the system many years ago when foreign languages became compulsory in many degree courses. Over the years their importance increased. "Today, to become a lettore you have to have a specialisation in the specific field," said Ms Ayers. "So to teach English to engineering students you would probably need a degree in engineering or knowledge of scientific English."
Lucia Casadei, 37, an Italo-Czech who teaches Czech in Rome, said: "The treatment of lettori is shameful. In the literature departments we often teach not just language but also literature. We take part in research alongside the professori, we hold seminars and conferences. I suspect that if we had been Italians we would have been better treated.
"The rectors conference is afraid of a new category of teachers working its way into the mainstream of the university system."
The lettori are supported by some professori. At Florence and Siena universities a number of lecturers have signed a document saying that it would be very difficult to hold written exams without the presence of the lettori. Guido Fink, president of the languages department, says lettori should be paid like associate professors, "but not that they should become associate professors".
Professor Fink points out that lettori and professori have different origins. "Language teachers were originally young foreigners who were staying a year or two in Italy and who taught on a temporary, part-time basis. While professori have to take a difficult competitive exam at each step of their academic career. There is, in fact, some panic among some literature professors that if hundreds of language teachers become professori there will be nobody to teach languages and there will be no more job openings."
The contract offered to the lettori is part of a deal offered to all the non-teaching staff. Pier Michele Strappini, union representative at Rome's main university, said: "We held a national referendum among the staff, including the lettori. The contracts were turned down, so now the unions will negotiate with the government agency responsible for public servants' contracts, and we will see what happens."
The lettori's dispute comes at a time of great uncertainty for universities, and indeed for the political system which should be implementing universally agreed higher education reforms.
Professor Fink said: "Nobody is quite clear on what is going on. Universities are now supposed to have 'autonomy' from the old centralised system. But does this include being able to promise the lettori a better contract than the national contract? I don't know and I have the feeling that nobody else does."