Foreign language lecturers have been battling for more than a decade for recognition that they are not just colourful figures there to lend a hand to the real teachers and a touch of authenticity to language courses. In most Italian universities they carry out 90 per cent of the teaching, plus writing, supervising and marking exams. But many of them net as little as one million lire (pounds 357) a month, as opposed to the three million lire of a native Italian.
"One of the most recent breaches was at the Universita Frederico II in Naples where 19 lecturers received a registered letter telling them to report to the personnel office within 48 hours and sign new contracts, which drastically curtailed their salaries and rights. Failure to do so would mean their employment was terminated," saidDavid Petrie, a tenacious Scot, the founder and president of the Association for the Defence of Foreign Lecturers.
From his home in Verona, Mr Petrie directs an incessant flow of faxes, letters, press releases and legal challenges. Over the years his pursuit of justice has become an obsession. Several times he has taken to court his own university in Verona - and won - but is still waiting to see his legal victory translated into reality.
He is not alone. About 1,000 of the estimated 1,500 foreign language lecturers in Italy are involved in legal proceedings.
"The ridiculous thing is that even Italian judges have upheld our claims but the university boards and rectors simply refuse to comply. The ministry says the universities are autonomous but I bet no university back in Britain would ever claim they were above the law," added Mr Petrie.
The trials and tribulations of the lettore stranieri go back some years. Foreigners were traditionally employed on annual renewable contracts until their case became a test of EUcredibility, regarding the equal treatment of European nationals within each state.
The foreign lecturers won two landmark rulings. The first, at the European Court of Justice in 1995, established that, because Italian lecturers had open-ended contracts, non- nationals should have the same. "After the 1995 ruling, the authorities simply shifted the goalposts. They offered us new open-ended contracts but for a different job. We are no longer lecturers but collaboratori linguistici, linguistic collaborators, on worse wages and conditions than before," Mr Petrie said. In 1996 14 lecturers in Salerno were fired for refusing to sign new contracts.
The second sentence declared that the lecturers had been discriminated against and were entitled to back pay including arrears of pension and social security contributions.
A year ago, the European Commission decided to bring a case against Italy before the European Court of Justice regarding the acquired rights of the lecturers. In September, the Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, Padraig Flynn, warned Italy that if "swift and comprehensive action" was not taken to bring foreign lecturers' contracts into line with European law "the Commission would not hesitate to proceed with legal action".
"To placate Brussels, the Ministry for Universities presented a letter sent to all rectors urging them to fall into line. Yet in a separate note to state lawyers last month, it said the European Commission was well disposed towards `definitively closing the case' or in layman's terms, dropping it," said Mr Petrie.
However, it appears that the Commission has no intention of letting things slip and at a 2 December meeting it agreed to continue legal proceedings.
While Mr Petrie and his 400-odd followers hope a European solution will guarantee their status and conditions, other foreign lecturers are battling through the Italian union system.
"It's really getting out of hand," said John Gilbert, a New Yorker teaching in Florence and a member of CGIL, Italy's largest trade union. "University after university is resorting to bully tactics. They put lecturers in a position where if they want their legally won rights to be respected they have to accept that another colleague may lose his job through `restructuring'. The overall losers are not only we lecturers but also our students," he said.