Last week thousands of Italian students brought Rome’s traffic to a grinding halt when they joined to protest over the government’s proposed spending cuts on Higher Education. Students from all over the country reached the capital by trains and buses and then proceeded to march through the streets congregating in the central Piazza Navona.

Italian trade unions, who organized the protest have estimated that 500, 000 students took part in the protest, although police officials have set the figure nearer 100,000. One student observing the event described how some protesters carried ‘symbolic shields, which were made to look like books’. Others carried a blue tarpaulin to represent the ‘l’onda anomalia’ (anomalous wave) of protests over the last few weeks, while some carried placards with slogans including ‘l’onda non dorme, ma riscrive le riforme’ (the wave doesn’t sleep but rewrites the reforms) and ‘noi la crisi non la paghiamo!’ (everyone knows we won’t pay for this shit).

This recent wave of protests has been sparked by the cuts to Higher Education spending proposed by Italy’s Minister of Education, Mariastella Gelmini. It has been reported that these spending cuts will amount to a loss of 1.5 billion Euros and will lead to 130,000 job losses. The decree to reform education in Italy was approved by the Italian government on October 29 when Law 133 was passed, despite its massive public unpopularity, with a majority of 162 votes to 134. The reforms to higher education are not yet finalized but the general outline includes a reduction in teaching hours, a narrowing in the variety of degree courses available, public funding to be allocated to universities on a performance related basis. There are also fears that the reforms are increasing the likelihood that more universities will privatize.

‘Trade unions estimated that 500, 000 students took part in the protest, although police officials have set the figure nearer 100,000’

Demonstrations mounted by students and teachers over the past 4 weeks, have included sit-ins, strikes, marches and open-air lessons, in cities all over Italy. On October 30, 90% of schools in the countries were closed by a one day teaching strike, while in Turin approximately 50,000 students protested with the musical backing from the city’s orchestra and 5,000 students took part in a sit-in in front of the Milan’s stock exchange. On November 7, students took part in protest over 12 Italian cities including Rome, Torino, Cagliaria, Florence, Milan, Naples, Pisa, Lecce, Padua, Turin, Bari Bolgna and Palermo in Sicily. On the same day clashes between students and riot police occurred at the Ostiense railway station in Rome. It has been reported that some students sustained injuries after being hit by police batons.

Reports on the protests indicate increasing political polarization, with the debate over the reforms being played out as a left versus right conflict. Some reporters have accused the government of attempting to ‘whip up a right-wing atmosphere’ and incite right wing groups to attack protesters. Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi has stated ‘I regret that a young people have been manipulated by the left… I see a scandalous left wing which has the ability to reverse the truth and speak the contrary’.

Although faced with much opposition, some believe that the Gelmini reforms, or at least some reform on the Italian higher education sector, are necessary. Italian universities were lambasted last week by The Economist, which emphasized the prevalence of nepotism and ‘cronyism’ leading to overstaffing and a ‘proliferation of courses and departments…Italy has 37 courses with but a single student; 327 faculties have fewer than 15’. Italian universities also have the highest dropout rate of 55%. Gelmini has stated that the government will proceed with the reforms, in spite of the protests, saying ‘I’m working so that at least one Italian university can be counted among the top 100 in the world… It’s a difficult challenge and I realise as minister I have full responsibility, but I also realise that to be successful everyone needs to work together’.

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