An Italian student magazine has been inundated with complaints about academics who neglect their teaching duties to spend large amounts of time on contract work in private universities.
University leaders acknowledge the problem's existence but say they cannot legally tackle it.
Earlier this year, the web-based publication Studenti advised its readers, who are mainly secondary school and university students, that they should find out whether the lecturers taught conscientiously on courses they might be considering. It asked current students for reports to inform prospective students. These are now being published.
One team of students identified a senior professor of economics at a university in Rome, with a state salary of about €3,500 (£2,500) a month plus pension and health benefits. In a period in which he was supposed to give 22 one-hour lectures, he turned up for 12, often very late. He was also absent when he was supposed to receive students. Various assistants stood in for him, including at least one who seemed to have no official connection with the university.
The students discovered that the professor was also teaching at one of Rome's private universities and working as a consultant to several companies.
Another group of students at the same university in Rome told of a professor in communications studies who showed up for only the first six of 60 scheduled hour-long lectures. Junior academics delivered the rest of the lectures.
The professor also failed to turn up for any exams, which were run by his junior associates despite a legal requirement that the titular professor of a course must be present at all exams.
Verena Gioia, one of the magazine's editors, said: "We've had hundreds of reports from all over the country. There was about one positive report for every nine negative ones. Most complaints came from big universities. And the situation is worse in fields connected to a profession and in the humanities.
"Prospective students who have to choose courses should realise that if they choose a course with an eminent and powerful academic, there is a greater risk (of not seeing him or her) than in a course with a less famous lecturer."
Piero Tosi, rector of Siena University and president of the Italian Rectors Conference, said there was a problem, but with only a minority of academics. "Many academics do more than their contract demands. But we do not have the legal means to discipline those who do not. New and more rigorous laws are needed. On the few occasions that a university has tried to dock pay, the lecturer appealed in court and won."
Linguist Raffaele Simone, who has published several books on Italy's university system, agreed that neglect of duties was "one of the main problems afflicting our universities".
He added: "It is a historically rooted malaise. And, in spite of a few recent efforts to cure it, nobody wants or seems able to put a stop to it.
The internal governance of universities is too weak. Rectors are elected by their peers and are reluctant to make enemies. Beyond that, the legislative means do not exist."