Italian students demonstrate against education reforms

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Thousands of students have demonstrated in Italy ahead of a Senate vote on controversial education reforms.

Protests in Rome remained orderly, though students clashed with police in Palermo, roads were blocked in Turin, and rubbish set on fire in Naples.

Police prevented a repetition of last week's violent clashes in Rome by blocking off parts of the city centre.

The government says university education has become bloated and inefficient, and needs streamlining.

But critics say Italian universities are already severely under-funded.

On the march

In Rome, students in their thousands marched peacefully through the streets.

"We are in the square to protest against [Education] Minister Gelmini and to show that after the 14th of December we are not divided, we are not violent, we are simply here to demonstrate and to validate our ideas," a student called Franco told Reuters TV.

The demonstrators avoided a so-called "Red Zone" created by police blockades to avoid a repeat of last week's violent protests sparked by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi survival of a no-confidence motion.

But clashes were reported in Palermo, Sicily, where some students allegedly threw stones at police and tried to enter a local government building.

In the northern city of Turin, protesters attacked a publishing house owned by the prime minister, while in Naples students reportedly brought traffic to a standstill.

Demonstrations also took place in other cities across Italy, including Milan, Venice, and Perugia.

Reforming the system

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.

The BBC's David Willey, in Rome, says there is excessive power in the hands of ageing professors and teachers.

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 9bn euros (£8bn, $12bn).

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.

Job losses

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.

Image caption,
A protester offered a book to a policeman during a demonstration in Milan

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.

Our correspondent says there is heavy youth unemployment in Italy and many university graduates take years to find jobs.

The education bill proposed by Ms Gelmini was discussed in the Senate on Wednesday, although, according to Italian media sources, the vote was delayed until Thursday afternoon.

If it is passed, Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano - who met a delegation of students on Wednesday - would then have to sign the bill into law.

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