In a dramatic and unprecedented move, all 77 of Italy's university presidents resigned last month to protest the latest round of steep budget cuts they say are jeopardizing the country's higher education system.
"People must be made aware that universities are close to collapse and that unless there is a change of government, they can't last more than two or three years," said Piero Tosi, chair of the Association of Italian University Deans.
The conservative government of Silvio Berlusconi has apparently paid for massive tax reductions through steep social spending cuts, including a reduction of more than $200 million in university funding for 2003. The presidents say spending must at the very least be maintained at last year's level of $6.3 billion.
"It seems there is a clear will to sink Italian universities," Tosi told reporters at a news conference in Rome. "We're not asking for much, just the same amount that would be spent to build 30 kilometres of a highway."
A statement released by the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance criticized the presidents' actions, saying that no final decision has been made on funding for 2003.
The mass resignation follows months of protests and strikes by students and faculty as Italian universities struggle with their most serious financial crisis in history. That crisis was perhaps best illustrated this fall when the prestigious University of Rome, faced with a lack of classroom space, was forced to erect circus-style tents on its campus in order to deal with massive overcrowding.