Two former rectors of the University of Palermo face demands for the return of €8 million (£5 million) for hundreds of allegedly unjustified promotions and pay increases.
Mass promotions in universities have been used by the Italian media as examples of how the principles of meritocracy, loudly trumpeted by government and supported by unions, are, in practice, almost totally ignored in the public sector.
According to Il Giornale di Sicilia , Sicily's main daily newspaper, between 1994 and 1999 more than 300 unskilled staff and technicians were arbitrarily promoted. Many now receive salaries higher than employees with degrees and higher than many academics.
This allegedly took place without any kind of competitive exam. One case involved a now retired doorman at the morgue of the medical school, who was earning as much as an associate professor.
Although Italian universities enjoy a certain degree of administrative autonomy, staff salaries are paid directly by the state.
The Corte dei Conti, a watchdog tribunal on state expenditure, is demanding the return of what it deems excessive spending from former rectors Ignazio Melisenda Giambertoni and Antonio Gullotti and from half a dozen senior administrators at Palermo. They have two months in which to justify the cost of the promotions.
At La Sapienza in Rome, the promotion of 582 technicians to the rank of "researcher" was annulled by the government following complaints by university minister Ortensio Zecchino.
In Corriere della Sera , Italy's most authoritative daily, Angelo Panebianco, professor of political science at Bologna University, wrote of "the impossibility of establishing mechanisms of recruitment and career advancement based on competence and merit", adding that "where on paper such mechanisms exist, a thousand tricks are used, thanks to union pressure and the weakness of politicians, to make advancement automatic".