Students at a rally in Florence call on the government to rescind controversial school reforms [EPA]

After weeks of nation-wide protests over a proposed education reform bill, university and high school students in Italy say they are committed to forcing the cabinet to back down.

Using the "We won't pay for your crisis" slogan as their rallying cry they have said the government is sacrificing the national school system in hopes of alleviating the effects of the global financial meltdown on the local economy.

The government has proposed reforms that would introduce administrative budget cuts, reduce the number of university courses and shut down campuses with low attendance records.

The government also plans to allow transform universities into "foundations" which would then be open to private funding.  

Maurizio Falsone, 23, a law student at the University of Pisa, says he joined the protests because he believes there is "clear intent" to deprive Italy's universities of public funding and remove government fiscal responsibility altogether.

"The reform would create geographical inequality. We would have universities with access to major funding in rich parts of the country, such as Milan in the north, and inefficient athenaeums in poorer regions of Italy, such as Sicily in the south.

"Geographical inequality will fuel social inequality while we should be working towards the opposite direction," Falsone told Al Jazeera.

Student protesters have called for a 'day of national mobilisation' on November 28 following earlier demonstrations on October 30 and November 14, and plan to join a nation-wide strike on December 12.

The reform

The school reform bill, which has already been approved by parliament, is expected to introduce new rules to the current school system.

Primary schools, for example, will replace the teacher-per-course curriculum and instead use a single teacher for all subjects per class.

In secondary school, a grade will be assigned for students' behaviour which will affect their overall performance; legislators say this is a measure to curb bullying.

A point-grade system instead of the current written assessments will be reinstated and the cost of textbooks will also be lowered in an effort to ease the economic burden on families.

Nevertheless, the protests have continued despite the government's pledge of a $178mn-fund for scholarships and fellowship research. 

Opposition

Students of Milan University carry out a protest  [EPA]

Members of the opposition have said that the government's reforms are well-disguised measures to slash the education budget rather than improve a faulty system.

Walter Veltroni, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, has argued the reform bill will in the next three years cut a total of $10.4 bn from school funding and nearly $2 bn from university funding.

He said the Democratic Party would work to get the bill cancelled.

Anna Garavaglia, an opposition senator and shadow minister for education in the Democratic Party, told Al Jazeera: "We can't see any school project, only spending cuts; in the next three years the government will cut 87,000 teaching jobs and 44,500 technical jobs."

"The government has made across-the-board cuts, without [any] accounting control or consultation," she said.

Opposition politicians have also criticised Berlusconi's government for resorting to a law decree in the Italian legislative system which would allow the cabinet to vote on an emergency measure before delivering it to parliament. 

Such a measure leaves almost no room for parliament deliberation, is provisional and must be converted into law by the parliament within 60 days.
       
"The government has resorted to the wrong political tool: the law decree obstructing parliament debate," Garavaglia said.

"Go ahead"

However, Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister, and Mariastella Gelmini, the education minister in the right-wing government, have defended the reforms, promising there would be no cuts in the education system.

Berlusconi also said the bill would involve long-term measures and retirement for those teachers who reach pension age but no job cuts.

Regarding the primary school issue, Berlusconi has also highlighted that the reforms would allow a single teacher mechanism to be assisted by additional foreign language, religion and information technology instructors.

Gelmini said the government would go ahead with the reforms despite protests and said she would continue her work to improve the university system, currently one of the least-rated in the European Union. 

Primary schools

Gian Antonio Stella, a columnist for the Corriere della Sera newspaper and author of the best seller La Casta (The Caste) - an essay on corruption and excess in Italian politics, says the government is wrong to apply reforms to the primary school system.

"Initiating reforms in primary schools is simply wrong because they are already performing well - they comprise the only working segment in the education system as a whole.

He finds it odd that the government did not apply any reforms to the secondary school system.

Nevertheless, Stella said: "There are a few reasonable points in the package, like Gelmini's plan to fund universities on performance-related grounds, the introduction of grades regarding students' behaviour and a new assessment system in school."

Perhaps the most contentious part of Gelmini's plan is the move to allow private funding in universities.

Falsone believes that the quality of instruction would suffer "research would be influenced by private investment privileging a few sectors at the expense of others."

He said: "Imagine in a few years what difference there would be between a university in Milan and one in Sicily."