'Pioneers of the new Europe' fight the Italian closed shop

Matthew Reisz and Diana Garrisi on the lettori's long-running struggle for equality and respect

June 16, 2011

Credit: Getty
Victims of 'apartheid': Foreign lecturers in Italy are still being treated as second-class citizens, working longer hours for less pay than their Italian counterparts

British lecturers who have sought careers as language teachers in Italy have some vivid stories to tell: tales of being treated as second-class to Italian colleagues while working longer hours for less pay, of being forced to teach in "mouldy chapels", with their lives made "as unpleasant as possible" by their superiors.

To some, the fate of the lettori sheds light on a murky corner of a higher education system characterised by "longstanding traditions of patronage within closed, guild-like institutions".

John Young was born in Scotland and studied French, German and history of art at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He originally went to Italy because of his interest in 15th- and 16th-century art, quickly learned Italian, taught for two years in a secondary school and finally got a job as a lettore - a non-Italian foreign language teacher - at the University of Milan. He has been teaching English language and literature there for more than 30 years.

It has hardly been a smooth ride. "Almost as soon as I began working at the university, within a period of two or three years, I found myself caught up in a legal battle that is still going on, 30 years later, over the status of lettori," recalls Mr Young.

He is just one of the British lecturers in Italy who have lodged hundreds of claims in the Italian courts about discrimination within the country's universities.

Certain grievances have been overcome, but specially targeted legislation introduced this year - the so-called Gelmini law, named after Mariastella Gelmini, the current minister of education - has raised fresh anxieties about what lies ahead for the lettori.

Troubled history

The title of lettore was introduced in 1980 as part of a wider reform of Italian higher education. It allowed non-Italians to work within the system on roughly the salary of associate professors.

Yet, unlike Italian professors who are on the public payroll, they were classified as professori a contratto, on private annual contracts with individual universities that could be renewed for only six years and gave them no rights to benefits, health insurance or pensions.

This generated protests, court cases and even strikes, leading to a 1993 ruling by the European Court of Justice that it was illegal, in most circumstances, to issue time-limited contracts solely to non-Italians.

A major change came in 1995, notes Mr Young, when "the Italian government passed legislation that changed the original job title from lettore to collaboratore ed esperto linguistico (CEL, "linguistic expert") and the description of teaching from lezioni ("lessons") to esercitazioni ("practice sessions"). Those who were called lettori were recategorised as 'non-teaching staff', which is a patent absurdity."

Someone who has long been following the plight of the lettori is Brad Blitz, professor of human and political geography at Kingston University. He first became interested in 1995 while working for a PhD at Stanford University on educational integration and freedom of movement within the European Union.

If the lettori saw themselves as "pioneers of the new Europe", he says, they were in for a rude awakening. The 1995 decree, he has written, effectively meant that they were "forced to work longer hours for less pay and lower status".

Professor Blitz's recent paper on the subject in the Bulletin of Italian Politics includes some striking testimonies from lettori. Given that they had been reclassified and regraded as CELs, "several university managers contrived to keep the non-Italian teachers at considerable physical distance from the Italian professoriate".

One reports being "given a mouldy chapel to do our lessons...where the echo was so bad it was impossible to understand when students spoke".

Another describes an environment where "the general feeling is that since so many of us are seven to eight years shy of retirement, it's time to turn the screw another notch and make life as unpleasant as possible so that we will quit before they have to pay us our full liquidazione" ("severance pay").

David Petrie was even more outspoken: he didn't hesitate to use the word "apartheid".

Mr Petrie, chair of the Association of Foreign Lecturers in Italy, has long lobbied on behalf of the lettori. They now comprise a number of distinct categories, each with a slightly different set of grievances.

Recent recruits have voluntarily signed contracts, however unsatisfactory, to work as CELs. But many of the pre-1995 lettori refused to sign their new contracts. As a result, some were fired, and although they were usually reinstated, it was on a lower-scale salary.

Others did sign, but only after inserting a reserve clause expressing their dissatisfaction.

Many individuals have submitted claims about unilateral downgrading, continuity of employment and parity with equivalent Italian staff that have often been accepted by the local courts and upheld by the European Court of Justice.

Yet in many cases, says Mr Petrie, those making such claims "have to wait 18-24 months for a full hearing, which then goes to appeal. It's part of the game to keep us tied up for another four or five years. Some cases go on for eight to 10 years. The Gelmini law, in force since January, declares that 'all pending court cases relating to these matters are forthwith extinguished'."

Professor Blitz suspects that this will "open the door to further actions before the European Court of Human Rights, since it appears that the Italian state is violating the lettori's rights to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time".

When it has been challenged, continues Mr Petrie, "the Italian government keeps playing the same record it's been playing for years: it's all a matter for local courts and university administrators. But the EU makes clear that states have direct responsibility for ensuring non-discrimination in employment.

"The nub of the matter is that the Italian state pays the salaries of Italian professors but not lettori, so universities have to find the money from their own budgets. Many of them are cash-strapped or even in considerable debt.

"As I put it in a speech to the European Parliament: the universities can't pay, the government won't pay. But the state can't claim it's a purely local matter, since it votes in the legislation, encourages universities to cut salaries and backs them when they go to court."

Unfair treatment

The situation of the lettori, Professor Blitz has argued, provides a striking instance of EU nationals not being "treated fairly when they have competed for jobs outside their home states, even after many years of residence". But there are also questions about what it means for a higher education system he believes to be characterised by "longstanding traditions of patronage within closed, guild-like institutions".

Although it varies between universities, British lettori now earn roughly €1,300 (£1,130) a month, the same as they have for more than a decade. Mr Young, for example, has to work as a translator and voice-over artist, as well as for the University of Strasbourg and the French and Italian governments - and has even appeared in an advertisement for grappa - in order to keep body and soul together.

In response to the arguments of Enrico Decleva, a former chairman of the Conference of Rectors of Italian Universities, that foreign lecturers are paid less than Italians because they do not conduct research, Mr Young comments: "Of course we don't do research because we are not allowed to. That is itself emblematic. I'm not allowed to carry out research, take part in faculty meetings or act as supervisor for a thesis."

Yet in operating what amounts to a closed shop, in Mr Young's view, Italian universities have deprived themselves of huge teaching talent and effectively shot themselves in the foot.

"After 20 years of the university denying us a career," he reflects, "I would be delighted to contribute more if given the opportunity."


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