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Austria: Foreign experts recommend important changes to Austrian higher education

In late 2011, the Austrian government plans to announce a new higher education strategy (Hochschulplan).  As part of the preparation process, it asked three foreign experts to produce a “view from the outside” (Aussensicht), with recommendations for change.  The experts’ report has recently come out and contains far-reaching reform proposals.

The report was produced by Antonio Loprieno, the Rector of Basel University, Andrea Schenker-Wicki, Professor of Business Administration at Zürich University and Eberhard Menzel, President of the Hochschule Ruhr West in Germany. It covers a wide range of subjects, amongst which funding and access are key. These are  the most controversial issues in the current Austrian higher education debate.

The experts believe they have identified new sources of funding worth EUR 790 million per year, about a quarter of present spending on higher education in Austria. Of this amount, EUR 220 million is to come from tuition fees (i.e. EUR 1 000 per student per year). In fact, tuition fees were de facto abolished a few years back, and the ruling coalition of conservatives (ÖVP) and socialists (SPÖ) is divided on this issue. An additional EUR 80 million is to be generated by income from student loans, which are to partially replace the present grant system. The largest single chunk of additional income (EUR 280 million) is to come from compensation payments for foreign students. The experts propose that Austria seek a compensation agreement at the EU level, whereby net exporter countries of students to Austria would pay an amount ranging between EUR 5 626 and EUR 27 244 (depending on subject area) for each of their nationals in excess of Austrian students studying in their country. The model proposed is based on a similar scheme in place between the different Swiss cantons.  First reactions in Austria have been skeptical, with doubts about the realism of the additional revenue levels expected by the experts. 

The experts also recommend putting an end to the present free access system (at universities, not at Fachhochschulen) and replacing it by a numerus clausus and competitive entry, an issue on which there have been stormy discussions in the recent past. Likewise, they recommend expanding and strengthening the college (Fachhochschul) sector, which should in the medium term enrol about 40% of all students (up from only 11% today). Finally, they recommend concentrating research efforts and funding to create critical mass in a limited number of areas where Austria is considered to be internationally competitive.

Austrian Federal Ministry for Science and Research