Italian students demonstrate against education reforms

ROME – Thousands of students were demonstrating in Italy yesterday, ahead of a Senate vote on controversial education reforms, BBC News reported. Rome police have sealed off the area around parliament after last week’s violent protests when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi survived a no-confidence motion. The education minister says reforms will save billions of euros and create a more merit-based system. Critics say universities are already severely under-funded.

In Rome, students in their thousands have been marching peacefully through the streets. But clashes have been reported in Palermo, in Sicily, where some students were reported to be throwing stones at the police. Demonstrations were taking place across Italy, in cities including Milan, Venice, Turin and Perugia.

The reforms will cut the number of university courses, merge some smaller universities, reduce funding for grants, increase the role of the private sector and limit the duration of rectorships. But while many agree that reforms of the education sector might be needed, there has been criticism of the swingeing cuts, thought to total around EUR 9 bln.

Italy spends less than 5% of its Gross Domestic Product on education – lower than many developed countries. But the cuts are part of wider austerity measures that the government is introducing in order to reduce its public debt.

Students have held a number of demonstrations in recent months over the cuts, which some estimate will lead to the loss of about 130,000 jobs in the education sector. “We are asking for this bill to be blocked and for the whole public education system to be refinanced,” the Student Network said in a statement. On Tuesday, Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini said she was open to talks on the reforms. But she has insisted 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 education bill proposed by Gelmini was being discussed in the Senate on Wednesday, although the vote may be delayed until Thursday.

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