ROME (Reuters) - Students marched through Italian cities on Tuesday in protest against education reforms, blocking roads and railway lines in some of the biggest demonstrations seen in decades.
The students, who last week occupied tourist sites around the country including the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Colosseum, have vowed to block proposed changes by Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini.
The reforms -- which include spending cuts and set time limits on research -- were approved by the lower house of parliament on Tuesday and now move to the Senate for approval.
Thousands of students streamed through central Rome, chanting and waving banners bearing slogans such as "education is on its knees" and threw eggs, vegetables, bottles and fireworks toward parliament.
They later blocked streets and stormed railway stations and lay down on the tracks, disrupting train services.
Scuffles with police broke out when protesters tried to approach parliament. Similar protests in other cities also led to tension with police.
"We want to see a grass-roots reform, not a reform that stems from the corridors of power," said 24-year-old Tommaso Ricci, a mathematics student at the University of Florence.
The reforms also introduce changes the government says will usher in a more merit-based system, such as capping the term of rectors to six years instead of life-long terms.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi hailed the passage through the lower house as a "fatal blow to nepotism" and blamed the protests as the work of left-wing extremists. "The real students are at home studying," he told Ansa news agency.
The protests were the latest in a wave of demonstrations against austerity measures throughout Europe.
In Britain on Tuesday, thousands of students and school pupils protested against planned rises in university tuition fees, causing disruption in central London and other cities.
Gelmini says the reforms, aimed at saving several billion euros by the end of 2012, will create a more merit-based system.
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.
"This reform has been drawn up without any dialogue with students and teachers," said Barbara Marchetti, 27, studying for a PhD in physics at Rome University.
The unrest is a further blow for Berlusconi's troubled government, already undermined by a weak economy and a series of scandals and facing two confidence votes in parliament on December 14 that could lead to early elections.
Gelmini had warned legislators, who have made some minor amendments to the package to satisfy students and teachers, that she would withdraw the reforms if too many changes are made.
(Additional reporting by Gabriele Pileri; editing by Maria Golovnina)