I’ve devoted a lot of attention in recent days to the extraordinary uprising of Britain’s students, but there’s a new student movement growing in Italy that’s at least as spectacular.

Last week Italian students occupied the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Colloseum in Rome, as well as Turin’s Mole Antonelliano (symbol of the 2006 Winter Olympics) and other national monuments. Today they are blocking roads, public squares, and railway tracks throughout the nation.

Italy’s government is looking to increase student fees and cut aid to higher education, as many other governments currently are, but the current Italian protests aim to block a much broader and deeper intervention into the nation’s higher education system.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is seeking a radical overhaul of Italy’s higher education system — transforming campus governance and faculty recruitment while adopting a new funding structure that could lead to the closing of many institutions. In protest, many “ricercatori” — entry-level lecturers who teach some forty percent of Italian college courses — have refused to present their assigned courses, throwing many universities into disarray.

Berlusconi hopes to pass his higher education reform proposal, known as the Gelmini plan, before the end of the year, but his government, wracked by scandal, is on the verge of collapse.

Afternoon update | Some three thousand student protesters clashed with police in Rome’s city center today, throwing tomatoes, eggs, and smoke bombs. Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd, who were attempting to reach the Chamber of Deputies where the vote is scheduled to take place.

Second update | The Gelmini plan passed the Chamber of Deputies by a vote of 307-252. It now goes to the Senate for consideration there.