Italian police are clamping down on the illegal sale of legitimate degrees and the proliferation of bogus degrees and diplomas from obscure institutions.
In the most dramatic move so far, 29 lecturers and students at the University of Messina, including members of the medical faculty, are under investigation. Eugenio Caratozzolo, dean of the political science faculty, has been arrested for his part in an organisation alleged to have sold exam passes and degree certificates to students. Three other academics, an examinations board member and a businessman have also been arrested.
The Italian secret service (Sisde) and local police began investigations last July when students complained that exams were being traded for Pounds 200-Pounds 800 each in the faculties of economics, statistical science, and letters and philosophy.
Last year an economics lecturer at Messina was shot in the legs (a recognised Mafia warning) after refusing to pass students. This was followed by an anonymous official complaint and an arson attempt at the law faculty's private law institute. A lecturer in mathematics at the economics faculty said she had received death threats and a chemistry lecturer also complained of intimidation.
Police operations are continuing and they have not ruled out more arrests. Rector Diego Cuzzocrea told an emergency senate meeting: "I hope magistrates will succeed in ascertaining that there has been outside interference."
In a separate operation police have arrested eight people and another 62 have been indicted in a clamp-down on a nationwide racket that for years sold bogus degrees and diplomas.
Police closed down 114 firms or offices, including 43 dental surgeries, and seized false degrees and diplomas. According to the police, who began their investigation almost by chance a year ago, a group of "private schools" would offer their "students" degrees and diplomas from obscure, dubious or non-existent foreign universities for up to 150 million lire (Pounds 60,000).
The schools themselves would then take the complex bureaucratic steps to have degrees and diplomas recognised under Italian law. Most of the diplomas and degrees were in well-paid professions and involved dentists and opticians. But there were also cases of people buying degrees in law, economics, engineering and architecture.
The universities from which these academic titles originated included the Eloy Alfaro De Manasi Di Manta and the Tecnica Particular de Loya, both in Ecuador, and the Jagielonski Medical School in Poland. The main agent for the degrees was the European Interuniversity Centre, located near Pavia in northern Italy, which sold degrees directly or through a number of "private schools" in various parts of Italy, it is alleged.
Among those arrested were the rector and director of international relations of the EIC.
The investigation began last year when police visited a dentist's surgery in Prato, near Florence, for a routine check. Their suspicions were aroused by an employee's certificate as "dental technician", which subsequently turned out to be unknown to the local health authorities. From there, they backtracked to the various schools and bogus correspondence courses.
The falsification of academic titles is considered a particularly serious crime in Italy, where titles are recognised by the state and are an important factor in seniority in state jobs, pension benefits, and the concession of commercial and professional licences.