David Petrie is celebrating a European Parliament victory after battling for more than a decade for pay and conditions parity between Italian academics and foreign language teachers in Italy. He has a simple explanation for what has motivated him for so long. "Moral indignation. I also enjoy it up to a point."
A philosophy graduate who had been teaching English as a foreign language, he moved to Italy in 1984 to manage a private language school, and then successfully applied for a post in Verona University's institute of English. The foreign language teachers, lettori, were appointed on one year contracts, renewable for up to six years, unlike native academics, who win tenure after going through a competitive state examination system.
But David Petrie was outraged that after doing what he felt to be a good job, with increasing responsibility, the best he could expect was to be moved to another university after six years. Following two European Court of Justice rulings on equal treatment, the Italian parliament has introduced a series of short-term decrees which have accepted tenure but have not yet resulted in parity across the board.
David Petrie claims associate professor status, since as well as designing and teaching undergraduate courses, he sat on the examination commission and supervised dissertations. But Verona, which calls him doctor rather than professor, is attempting to reclassify the lettori as lab technicians, he says.
Verona's foreign language teachers have been in dispute with management since 1988, and after the Italian parliament proved slow in formally implementing the European Court rulings, Professor Petrie decided to increase the political pressure. He enlisted the help of his Scottish MEP, Hugh McMahon, who last month won overwhelming support for a resolution seeking guarantees that Italy will respect the acquired rights of language teachers and safeguard their pension rights and increments.
One section of the resolution states that "the basic human rights and democratic freedoms of 14 foreign language teachers at Verona are being violated following eviction from their offices to a basement measuring six metres by four and through other forms of intimidation and legal filibustering".
Professor Petrie said: "People throughout the university were shocked to find Verona on the agenda with war criminals and Srebrenica." But this public attack on the system is not considered the done thing in Italy. "The Italian system is very, very baronial. What you're really supposed to do is find a protector, and he will somehow through his connections manage to get you a permanent post," he said.
Professor Petrie, currently in Scotland, sees the European Parliament vote as a step towards victory rather than victory itself. "The best of hypotheses would be the Italian state saying: 'We can't win this one, let's sit down and negotiate with these people.' But I expect to go back and find more trouble, really."