ROME (Reuters) – Thousands of Italian students marched to protest a new university law on Wednesday as police blocked off large parts of the centre of Rome to stop a repeat of violent clashes seen at a similar march a week ago.
Last week’s demonstration saw cars torched, shop windows smashed and dozens injured in street battles between protestors and riot police after the initially peaceful march descended into some of the worst violence seen in Rome for years.
The rioting, which came after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in parliament, was blamed by Interior Minister Roberto Maroni on militant agitators and provoked calls for a crackdown by many in the ruling centre-right.
Protest leaders, who want to avoid similar scenes on Wednesday, have pledged not to try to breach police blockades in Rome, but clashes with police were reported at another student protest in the Sicilian capital Palermo.
Similar demonstrations are also being planned in other Italian cities including Venice, Modena, Perugia, Reggio Emilia, Grosseto and Barletta.
With an official youth unemployment rate of around 25 percent in the country overall and as high as 35 percent in the poorer south, the battle over university reform has crystallised growing discontent over the future of Italy’s young people.
“We will certainly continue mobilising,” Rome student Claudio Rizzo told Reuters Television.
“It’s not only a mobilisation against university reforms but of a generation that is making itself heard again over the politics of the country, the issues we face and the precarious situation in which we live,” he said.
VITAL REFORM OR MERE FUNDING CUT?
The new education law, which the government says will strengthen Italy’s crumbling university system but which critics say will merely cut funding, was due for final approval in the Senate on Wednesday though a vote may be delayed until Thursday.
Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini, who has piloted the new law through parliament, said the measures were urgently needed to equip Italian students for employment.
“It is essential to restore dignity and usability to Italian university degrees,” she said in an open letter to the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
The reform cuts the number of university courses and faculties and reduces funding for grants. It also sets time limits for research, overhauls the admissions system, increases the role of the private sector in university governance and limits the duration of rectorships.
The government, under pressure to cut Italy’s bloated public debt, says that while spending cuts are necessary, the reform will create a more merit-based system which is closer to the needs of employers.
Supporters of the bill say the country’s overcrowded universities do little more than produce 30 year-old sociology graduates ill-fitted for work in a modern economy and the system needs radical overhaul.
Critics, many of whom also support the principle of reforming the universities, say the system has been systematically starved of funds and further cuts will seriously endanger Italy’s research capacity.
“We are asking for this bill to be blocked and for the whole public education system to be refinanced,” the Student Network, which groups different associations, said in a statement.