Italy's government has bowed to pressure from the Rectors Conference, academics and researchers and has promised an extra €350 million to €450 million (£220 million to £284 million) for state universities in budget legislation being discussed in parliament.
The move came as a surprise given the difficulties prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's conservative government faces in producing a budget for 2003. This must respect European Union economic parameters without making politically explosive cuts in pensions, health services and investments in the depressed south.
Italy's 70 rectors had threatened to resign en masse. They said that they would be unable to pay salaries and balance their budgets with the planned spending cuts and rising costs. Various groups of researchers and academics also protested that the government was signing the death warrant for Italian state research.
Piero Tosi, rector of Siena University and president of the Rectors Conference, said: "If there were a Maastricht for higher education and research, Italy would not be in Europe, in terms of spending per student and for research."
When Bologna University celebrated its 915th anniversary last month, rector Pier Ugo Calzolari warned: "In Italy, the resources available for each student are half the European average. Universities face a challenge in a highly competitive context."
The government said that its originally planned 2003 budget involved only insignificant cuts in higher education and research, with basic funding slipping from €6.2 million to €6 million, a 2.9 per cent cut. But it failed to take into account inflation at 2.7 per cent and rising costs, due partly to automatic salary increases and partly to the cost of implementing the reform of the university system.
The government has also vowed to increase research spending in an effort to stem an exodus of Italy's best young graduates. This will rise from 0.8 per cent to 1 per cent of gross national product against a European average of about 2 per cent.