Leaning Tower of Pisa taken by students amid European backlash to education cuts

Leaning Tower of Pisa was the target of student protests Thursday in Rome. Earlier this week, students in London clashed with police in demonstrations over fee increases.

Paolo Lazzeroni/AP
University students sit near the Leaning Tower of Pisa after hanging a banner with writing reading in Italian "No to the Gelmini (Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini) reform" Thursday. some 2,000 Italian university students occupied the Leaning Tower of Pisa to protest education cuts and reforms before parliament.

Italian students stormed the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Rome's Colosseum and blocked roads and railways Thursday in protest against university reform planned by Silvio Berlusconi's struggling government.

The measures, currently before parliament, include spending cuts and time limits on research.

Thousands of students marched in cities around Italy and occupied university buildings. One was injured during clashes with police in Florence, news agencies reported, but demonstrations were largely peaceful.

"We will block this reform," students chanted outside parliament buildings, waving smoke flares and banners.

They breached security at the Tower of Pisa, flying banners from the summit, and jumped over entrance turnstiles at the Colosseum.

The protest was the latest in a wave of demonstrations against austerity measures in Europe. In London, thousands of people rallied Wednesday against a rise in university fees.

The unrest is a further blow for Berlusconi's troubled government, already undermined by a weak economy and a succession of scandals, and facing two confidence votes in parliament on December 14 that could trigger early elections.

Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini says the reforms, which are aimed at saving several billion euros by the end of 2012, will create a more merit-based system.

But opponents say universities already have a funding shortfall of 1.35 billion euros next year and the planned cuts will further weaken Italy's higher education system.

The government was defeated in a parliamentary vote on Thursday on an amendment to the reform. Berlusconi no longer has a built-in majority in the lower house of parliament because of coalition infighting.

Gelmini said the amendment would be of little significance, but said she may withdraw the reform, due for a final vote on Nov. 30, if more substantive modifications are passed.

Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the main center-left opposition Democratic Party called for it to be scrapped immediately.

"Let's start discussing how we can correct the distortions of this law and how we can find resources to support the right to study and research," he said.

Related: After allies revolt, Italy's Berlusconi nears political end

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