Austrian coalition challenges university autonomy and teaching

Universities are relieved the Greens have replaced the far right, but see challenges ahead over their management and comprehensive subject mix

January 14, 2020
Source: Getty
Green cards: Werner Kogler (left), leader of the Austrian Green party, and delegates hold up their voting cards during the party congress earlier this month

Austrian universities are facing a challenge to their autonomy and their right to teach a broad range of subjects after the country’s new coalition government announced major reforms to higher education.

On the whole, rectors are breathing a sigh of relief that the Greens have ousted the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) as junior governing partners of Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party, following elections last September.

The FPÖ had used its nearly two years in government to appoint to university boards supporters who were sometimes seen as unqualified or who were members of nationalistic fraternities.

The new green-conservative coalition, sworn in on 7 January, has promised to secure funding for universities through to 2027, indexed against inflation and with extra funds to address problems such as low student-to-staff ratios in certain disciplines.

“What is a good sign is that science and research feature prominently” in the government’s plans, said Oliver Vitouch, vice-president of Universities Austria. “My impression is that I personally and Universities Austria are cautiously optimistic about the programme.”

But universities are wary of some elements of the programme, which argues that “not every subject needs to be taught in every location” and calls for “clusters of excellence” in particular disciplines.

“Many politicians believe that Austrian universities are too broad in research and teaching,” said Professor Vitouch. They are pushing for universities to gain “critical mass” and to become “visible and renowned in specific areas”, he added.

Some worry that this could exacerbate the sector’s geographical imbalance. In Austria, higher education is heavily concentrated in Vienna and the country’s second city, Graz. Together, these two locations host 80 per cent of Austrian students and 13 of its 22 institutions, said Professor Vitouch, who is rector of the University of Klagenfurt, based hundreds of miles south-west of the capital. “You have an east-west asymmetry already,” he said.

Subject consolidation could make this problem worse and also force students to move to campuses in expensive, big cities for their course of choice, he feared. “If you want to study, say, psychology, and you’re from Innsbruck, and it’s not possible to study at Innsbruck but rather Vienna or Graz, you have to pay for that,” he warned.

The government also wants universities to do more joint teaching with universities of applied sciences, but universities have warned that such a move would dilute the “unique selling point” of both types of institution.

Another cause for concern is a promise to “modernise” universities by bringing in “professional management at every level”, “faster decisions” and a “rethink” of the “relationship between the university council, rectorate and senate in the decision-making structures”.

“I am concerned about our autonomy” if the government tries to change the law, said Sabine Seidler, president of Universities Austria and rector of Vienna University of Technology.

Under current legislation, “internal organisation is the responsibility of the universities, and this important asset must be preserved”, she said.

Professor Vitouch said there was among politicians a widespread view that Austrian universities needed to become more “efficient” – cutting student dropout rates, for example – and an admiration for highly ranked US institutions, which are often seen as more management-led than continental European institutions, where academics typically have a voice in choosing leaders.

The reforms could mean that the Austrian university system “becomes even more Anglo-Saxon”, Professor Vitouch said.

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