The University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate is at the centre of a storm over a changeover by Italian universities from their own English language courses for students to standardised Cambridge exams.
Italian universities are re-orienting university language courses to meet Cambridge First Certificate requirements and exempting students who obtain passes from statutory examinations.
Lecturers say the move is an attempt to downgrade up to 700 English-language lecturers, 450 of whom are British, and will result in the elimination of duties such as course planning, the preparation and correction of written exams and marking.
John Gilbert, a lecturer at the University of Florence and national coordinator of Italy's largest trade union for university employees, the SNUR-CGIL, said:
"I am deeply concerned about this growing tendency to reduce our teaching to the factory-style preparation of students for a pre-determined foreign language test such as the CFE and Preliminary English (PET) examinations."
The introduction this year of FCE exams at the University of Pisa seems to have brought things to a head. Mark Eaton, a lecturer at Pisa and an Oxford graduate with 17 years' teaching experience in Italy, said: "The introduction of Cambridge examinations in Italian universities seems to be an open ploy to undermine the status of lettori. To agree to teach Cambridge courses in our position is quite literally a form of professional and legal suicide, since it means giving up all responsibility for syllabus design, placement, choice or design of materials and, significantly, examination ."
Francesca Santi, a first-year students at the University of Pisa, said:
"Although our professors are doing their utmost to promote the FCE exam, many of us feel that it is not pertinent to a proper university course and that the Pounds 100-plus entry fee is too high."
Lavinia Merlini, professor of English language studies at Pisa, said: "It has now become indispensable for our students to attain levels that are recognised by the Association of Language Testers in Europe." Lettori in Pisa had nothing to fear, she said.
Luciano Modica, rector of the University of Pisa and chairman of the Italian rectors' conference, said he would investigate.
PET is being used by universities in north and central Italy as part of the requirement for short degrees and diplomas. Other universities, such as Turin Polytechnic, have used PET for a number of years for students of architecture and engineering.
Anthony Buckby, director of language services for the British Council in Italy, said he would be pleased if more UK exams were being administered in Italy.
The European Commission in April finally referred the lettoris' long-running case against job discrimination, based on the sole issue of acquired rights, to the European Court of Justice.
An average of 600,000 candidates from 137 countries take the Cambridge exam every year.