One evening last week the near silence of a Roman mid-winter night was pierced by the sound of warwhoops, rythmic clapping and the tramp of booted feet.

"It's those university students again," complained an annoyed diner in a downtown restaurant. "You'd think they'd have gotten it out of their system by now and be back at their books."

"But what's the use of studying if there aren't any jobs," asked one of the young demonstrators, whose face was covered with an Italian version of war paint.

Most observers agree that the current recession plus years of inadequate educational planning are the major underlying causes of the first nationwide outbreak of student protests here in almost a decade.

Italy's current education problems, in part similar to those of other European countries, reflect the gradual success of a population that has been trying to force its way into the ranks of what was originally a miniscule middle class. Their route has been through the university.

Today there are 70,000 university graduates a year here in comparison with 23,000 in 1962 and 56,000 in 1970-71. Almost 300,000 students get high school diplomas each year, compared to only 76,000 in the early 50s, and 77 per cent of that number now go on to college.

Despite these advances, chaos on the campus, poorly prepared teachers and inadequate equipment in the classroom cast doubt on the overall quality of education. The last school reform bill dates back to 1962 and a university reform package promised in 1969 has failed to materialize.

"But the real problem," says a well-known Socialist educational expert, "is that we can't expect students to study seriously when the current economic situation has made their dipolmas worthless.

According to estimates by the Ministry of Labor, nearly two thirds of Italy's 1.2 million officially unemployed are young people looking for their first jobs. At least 100,000 of these are college graduates or laureati, and another 425,000 have diplomas from a vast variety of secondary schools.

The unexpected nationwide protests erupted in early February when rumors circulated that Italy's Christian Democratic minister of education was planning to restore the limitations on university enrollment that were swept away by the student movement of 1968.

The concept of an "open university" where anyone with a high school certificate can attend was considered a major victory in a country where, despite the advances of recent years, only 13 per cent of the school children possed through socio-economic barriers to get a college education.

In 1968, protests against the almost despotic power of many senior professors - Italy's academic barons - also won students the right to individually planned study programs that, together with unlimited enrollment, appear to have backfired. Now, there are, too many student, trained in the wrong areas seeking too few jobs.

Indeed, although much of the current uproar has been cloaked in abstract political rhetoric, the present malaise of Italy's 900,000 university students seems to have more mundane origins.

In Palermo, Sicily, where an exam to fill 2,300 teaching positions recently drew 80,000 applicants; only two out of every 10 college graduates now find a job. And a 1975 nation-wide study of 705 graduates from the 1972-73 academic year revealed that only 50 per cent had found steady jobs. A third did parttime or temporary work, and another 15 per cent was totally unemployed.

Italy's minister of labor, Tina Anselmi, recently proposed a new law that would use incentives to businesses to stimulate employment for some 300,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 28. At best, the new government plan is considered an inadequate stopgap measure for a socially explosive problem that is expected to seriously worsen over the next three or four years.

Critics of the present system complain that the government's failure to plan ahead has produced a dangerous imbalance. Sociologist Gianni Statera says "ours has always been a country where there has been no contact between the world of labor and the educational system." Thus, in recent years the universities have turned out thousands of doctors, lawyers, sociologists, teachers and philosophers, who cannot be absorbed by the market while more specialized jobs that often do not require a college education remain vacant.

Stefania, a 28-year-old unemployed Roman woman with a college degree in philosophy has a masters degree in economics from an American university and has done graduate work here in that field in the hopes of turning herself into a more "saleable" product.

"It might have helped if we'd had some vocational advice during high-school," she says, adding that her three best friends from high school, all college graduates, are now seeking out a living as a baby sitter, a pornography writer and a parttime cosmetics saleswoman, respectively.

She pointed out that she and her friends had been completely unaware of the fact that as recently as 1974 only 13.5 per cent of the executives and white collar workers employed by Italian industry were college trained.

"We grew up thinking that the laurent was a sure step along the road to social and professional success," she said, explaining that most of today's student protesters are the children of working or lower middle-class families who made great sacrifices to send their children to college rather than into Italy's factories or dwindling artisans' workshops. "Then recession came along and complicated an already chaotic situation."

With its ranks swollen by an influx of unemployed highschool graduates and by hangers-on seeking second or third degrees, the Italian university is caught in a vacious circle that prevents it from providing a quality education.

Because of overcrowded classrooms, a very poor professor-student ratio, insufficient laboratory and library materials and over-priced books, only a minority of the 150,000 students now enrolled at Rome University (originally built to accommodate 20,000) regularly attend classes.

"But it doesn't really matter" says one literature professor. "Most students today enroll in order to put off their military service and draw the small student stipend provided by the state while looking for a job."

"Our universities no longer produce culture, research or science," says Turin sociologist Angelo Picchieri. "They exist primarily in order to mask the true extent of umemployment among our youth."

The revival of the student movement has led to sit-ins and occupations in most of Italy's major universities and to violent clashes in Rome between Communists and leftist extremists who say they are fed up with all the traditional parties. It has revealed an unsuspected degree of frustation and rage among Italy's largely leftist students.

"But how can we blame them," says historian Leo Valiani. "The extreme difficulty of finding a job leads many to lose their desire to study and work. The weakness of our democratic state leads to demogogy, and the absense of real opportunities is creating in our youth an authentic and hardly imaginary sense of desperation."