So one of the big stories over here right now is the continuing protest against a proposed education reform bill which Berlusconi's minister for education, universities and research, Mariastella Gelmini, is trying to push through.
This bill will cut funding to Italy's drastically underfunded public universities, making it all but impossible to carry out research at doctoral level (already many researchers are living on literally a couple of hundred euros a month for years on end), and severely damaging the already unacceptable professor/student ratio. Instead the government is promoting the idea that public universities should consider converting themselves into "private foundations"
Meanwhile it will also greatly reduce the number of school teachers: Gelmini has said she wants to see 2/3 of current elementary school teachers removed: something like 88,000 teachers, nationwide, as well as over 40,000 support and admin staff in schools, are to be dismissed by 2011. The decree specifies that school hours should be based on a 24 hour per week model, and will implement a return to the "maestro unico" system of a single class teacher who covers every subject. It is also proposed that immigrant children be given admission tests in Italian, and placed into separate dedicated classes if they don't reach the required standard.
Twenty-four hours a week???? Christ on a bike. I thought Britain, with its 9-15.30 model, had relatively short hours compared with much of Europe (Germans are in school 8-16, the French 8-16,30). That's not even five hours a day. And if you're cutting support staff, then there's not going to be much in the way of after school activities going on. Meanwhile the "maestro unico" issue is a rather particular Italian issue: where in most of Europe primary schools have a single main class teacher with additional specialist teachers for music, PE, languages, religious instruction or art, in Italy since 1990 primary education is undertaken on a more specialized basis. There are 3 teachers for every two classes, each of whom teaches a very broad subject area - maths/science; language/composition; humanities/general studies. The proposed return to a maestro unico is extremely unpopular, though one can see that this system must be expensive. It seems clear that cuts are needed, but not that the current proposal offers the best way of doing so, since it clearly penalises the children & the education they receive.
As for what many people are calling the "apartheid" proposal of seperate classes for immigrants... I'm speechless. But of course if you're going to cut the provision for learning support assistants and additional language teaching which currently enables immigrant kids to catch up with their peers linguistically, and so integrate into the class, then having lots of non-Italian speaking kids in the classroom is going to be much harder. Apprently it will be cheaper to parcel them all off somewhere (out of sight, out of mind? will the government be providing top quality facilities and well-paid teaching staff for these seperate institutions, I wonder?).
And then we come to the universities. In terms of research funding, Italy already lags way behind other Western European countries. Now you're going to further cut funding - by €1 billion in 2010 alone - and start selling off the universities?? Best of all the government says there are "too many professors." WTF? most students never actually speak to their professor once, and may indeed barely set eyes on them. The aim in fact seems to be to cut access to high education; the national university rectors' association says that the entire university system "may collapse" if these cuts go ahead.
It's clear that the current system is over-burdened and expensive. It probably needs a rethink & an overhaul. But at a moment when the government is bending over backwards to write off Alitalia's debt and offer it vast public subsidies (most likely illegal, incidentally, under EU competition law), there is a strong suspicion that education is paying the cost of crisis in other sectors. Hence the main slogan the demonstrators have united behind: Noi la crisi non la paghiamo! - We won't pay for this recession.
The protests have been nationwide, continuous, dramatic and remarkably inclusive. Primary school kids protesting with their parents and their teachers together, secondary school children occupying their high schools, university students organizing marches, demonstrations, occupations along with their professors, and above all with the poor beleaguered researchers & doctoral students. Berlusconi has described them as "facinerosi" - thugs; while former president of the Republic and all-round cunt Francesco Cossiga thinks that they should be beaten, and severely at that: send the police in, but let's not have any arrests, he says, they need a good beating. Some people are talking about '68, but it's not like that since it is explicitly cross-party: left-wing student bodies have lined up alongside the far-right Blocco Studentesco in these demonstrations.
Some of the demonstrations have been quite imaginative (psychology researchers at La Sapienza here in Rome stripped down to their undies to protest at the stripping of the research budget, while students at Rome Tre went out to wash car windscreens at traffic lights, wearing signs saying "I don't want money, I'm training for my future"). As well as marches in Rome, Palermo, Florence, Milan, Bologna, Pisa, Parma, Turin, Bari, Genova and many other places, there have been outdoor lessons held in piazzas and in front of the Senate, or during sit-ins in various faculties, or 24-hour lecture marathons.
As a teacher, and as a researcher, these proposals horrify me. They cannot be anything other than devastating to an already fraught system. I don't work in the Italian public system so my job isn't affected - just the entire intellectual climate of the country. So not to worry. Time being at a premium right now I've not been able to go on any of these demonstrations, though I'd have liked to; my personal contribution has been donating my housemate an old sheet to be made into a banner, currently hanging on the outside of La Sapienza's chemistry faculty ("it's the first time this faculty has protested about anything since '68" a number of elderly professors have been exclaiming). But it's inspiring to see people actually get up & protest about something rather than just having a bit of a grump and a moan. And let's hope that such a huge, cross-generational, cross-party protest can have some effect.