Pisa. The new Italian government is preparing to do a deal with foreign mother-tongue lecturers and put an end to their ten-year battle against discrimination.
Sources in the ministry of employment confirmed that they had recently contacted David Petrie, chairman of the Committee for the Defence of Foreign Lecturers, for a meeting to be held in their Rome offices in September. Others scheduled to be present would include officials from the ministry of higher education, and the departments of European Community policy and public affairs.
A spokesman said: "The ministry is deeply committed to achieving a swift and equitable solution to this protracted and embarrassing problem, which has been tarnishing the image of Italian universities in Europe. The ministry is well aware of the fundamental and indispensable role of these lecturers within the university system. It is also aware of the imminent crackdown on EU lawbreakers." (Italy is blacklisted second after Greece.) A spokesman for the ministry of higher education added: "This is a problem which the ministry has decided must now be resolved once and for all."
Italy's new government seems anxious to improve its image, and a genuine and positive initiative would be consistent with recent and much needed school reforms. On the other hand, several European Court of Justice proceedings will certainly be making their mark.
The three central topics on the Employment Ministry's projected agenda for the September meeting are: full lecturer status, acquired rights and the national contract proposed by the government agency ARAN. But the lecturers will insist on adding a fourth point: public law contracts. Since there is an EU directive urging member states to integrate immigrant EU workers into the public service, the lecturers will be asking if the government intends to continue with its discriminatory two-tier system whereby Italians are employed under public law and foreigners under private law.
Foreigners on maternity leave are at present given inferior rights to their Italian, public law employed counterparts. Unless this issue gets resolved, it is difficult to see how the Italians will avoid falling foul of Article 48 of the Treaty of Rome, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace.
Mr Petrie - at present in Dublin with members of the committee and in contact with Irish politicians, including foreign minister Dick Spring - has confirmed the Italian initiative and is cautiously optimistic: "Whereas we warmly welcome in principle the new stance taken by the Prodi government, we will be anxious to see that the change of heart in Rome filters down to the university rectors who for ten years have denied the 700-plus members of our committee basic rights in universities."
Mr Petrie, who told the Times Higher Education Supplement almost a year ago that he was going back to "more trouble and an attempt to downgrade us to the status of technicians", is this time going back to a disciplinary hearing - also set for September - along with 21 colleagues at the University of Verona.
The accusation is "insubordination" for refusing to move to the university's linguistic centre as technical staff, and the hearing is scheduled under a code of conduct for technicians, which they have never signed. Verona rector Mario Marigo was not available for comment.
Mr Petrie says this is another example of what he has referred to as "widespread systematic, politically motivated abuse carried out against foreigners teaching in Italian universities".
Mr Petrie attended a meeting in Florence in June 1995 with a high-level panel appointed by the European Commission and headed by former European Parliament president and French minister Simone Veil who, together with her team of experts including six Commission lawyers, examined first-hand evidence of discrimination against lecturers teaching at Italian universities, in particular the cases of Verona, Pisa, Bologna, Naples, Milan, Rosem, l'Aquila and Palermo.
"Nobody coming out of that meeting," says Petrie, "could have been in any doubt something was seriously wrong with the Italian system."
The panel is due to deliver its official report in December.
Labour MEP for Strathclyde West, Hugh McMahon said: "This marks a major breakthrough and demonstrates that the years of pressure are paying off."