ROME's civil service college is desperately trying to ward off a takeover bid by Milan's Bocconi University.
New legislation could privatise some of the institute's functions and downgrade it to a secondary research centre, supporters fear.
The Higher Institute of Public Administration has 30,000 applications a year for just 100 places. Thirty per cent are reserved for civil servants, the rest for university graduates. The average age of successful applicants is 30 and the dropout rate is about five per cent.
Institute supporters have interpreted a press campaign to discredit the institute as part of extensive lobbying by Bocconi to take over its work.
They blame lack of pride in public institutions for an overreadiness to privatise, and fear the inevitable purchase of places by wealthy parents for their children.
But European commissioner Mario Monti, a former Bocconi rector, said that the institute had "illegitimate monopoly in respect of the norms of fair competition".
Institute director Franco Pizzetti said he was tired of the the tug of war:
"We teach a two-and-a-half year course, the first 18 months of which are postgraduate specialisation, something which really falls within the competence of universities.
"Bocconi argues it already runs such specialisation courses. In that case let them carry out these courses and have their students apply to us along with everyone else for the one-year training course. We would be delighted to rid ourselves of this specialisation aspect," he added.
Public Affairs ministry undersecretary Sergio Zoppi said the institute and its director had the ministry's full backing. "I feel sure that a solution will be found in the end to accommodate not only Bocconi but also Italy's other state and private universities. But the autonomy of the institute is beyond question and must be reinforced."