Twenty-three foreign lecturers at the University of Verona have been sacked for refusing to move to the university's linguistic centre as technical staff.
The dispute dates back to 1988 and centres on foreign lecturers' demand for parity with Italian teaching staff which has won the backing of the European Court of Justice. The sackings come as allegations of Italy's failure to obey court rulings are due to surface in the European Parliament.
Mario Marigo, rector of the university, said: "Faced with persistent violation of our repeated clear orders, the university proceeded to the necessary application of disciplinary measures in accordance with the new national contract."
But he failed to answer a written request for further clarification as to whether the decision had been taken autonomously or in collaboration with the employment or higher education ministries. Nor would he confirm having received an invitation to attend the next European Parliament plenary session in Strasbourg later this month from Hugh McMahon, Labour MEP for Strathclyde West, to defend the university in discussions with officials and Parliamentarians who have been watching the situation.
The sackings came less than a fortnight after the foreigners' lobby group the Committee for the Defence of Foreign Lecturers had held talks in Rome with employment ministry officials, who said their role could only be supervisory and that the problem must be solved by the higher education ministry.
A senior higher education ministry spokesman said: "This entire problem has become a major headache for us and is being viewed as a witch-hunt against Italy. Although it is the responsibility of individual universities, the ministry is defending the need to avoid creating another unsackable class of workers. No European country provides such tenure for foreign language assistants - why should Italy?" David Petrie, the committee's chairman and one of those sacked, said: "We are not assistants: we organise and teach autonomous courses and set exams in both language and literature as official members of examination boards. The Italians, having employed us for years as teaching staff, are now trying to force the foreigners, and only the foreigners, into the ghetto of linguistic centres as lab technicians."
As Ireland holds the EU presidency, Irish politicians are particularly concerned about the situation.
Irish MEP Brian Crowley discussed the issue this week in Rome with Irish lecturer Henry Rodgers and promised he would raise it as a matter of urgency with commissioner Padraig Flynn, while Irish MEP Patricia McKenna has pledged Green party support in Europe.