FOR THE first time in 30 years, candidates of the political right swept to victory in elections for student councils in many Italian universities, marking the end of a long-standing predominance of the left.
The unprecedented results also coincided with the first occasion in Italian history that government is in the hands of the former communists, the main partner in a mixed coalition, as well as the first time that an ex-communist, Luigi Berlinguer, holds the post of university minister.
Voting for student councils, which have a marginal role in the running of institutions, took place at universities in Rome, Milan, Turin, Trieste, Udine, Palermo and Catania. Among these was Rome's La Sapienza University, which, with 185,000 students, is the largest in Europe.
Both left and right wing student movements are traditionally extremist. In recent years, however, the right has tried to present itself as more moderate, as has Italy's ex-fascist party, Alleanza Nazionale. The left, instead, has split between small, semi-extinct groups faithful to extremist ideologies and those who identify with the reformed ex-communist party, which in terms of policy and ideology can be compared to today's Labour Party and is now firmly part of the political establishment.
In some universities the right-wing students formed electoral alliances with Catholic student groups. This certainly contributed to the election victories, but there is no doubt that momentum and enthusiasm have been lost by the left-wing groups that trace their roots back to the 1968 student revolts.
"Students have always tended to go against those in power," commented Franco Ferrarotti, professor of general sociology at La Sapienza and one of the fathers of Italian academic sociology. "Today the left, the ex-communist PDS party, is in power and the university minister, who is trying to limit access and is therefore perceived as reactionary, is also a man of the PDS.
"The present government, in theory on the left, appears uninspiring to the students and has done little to combat their nightmare of postgraduate unemployment. The average wait for a steady job after graduation is two years.
"In fact the policies of defending jobs and job security may be seen as an obstacle to employment for the young. The right, on the other hand, is in opposition and, with their policies of deregulating the job market, may appear to offer something better."
Professor Ferrarotti added that another "key point" was that in the late 1960s and 1970s, the academic barons tended to be political conservatives, while today students see the universities as being run by the so-called 'Red barons' - academics who made their careers under the cultural umbrella of the Communist Party, "often purely out of professional opportunism".