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Austria: working to extend the EU moratorium for student quotas

Austria has been for long trying to cope with the high influx of foreign, especially German, students into its medical and paramedical studies, a subject area governed by a numerus clausus condition in Germany. So has the French Community of Belgium (Wallonia) with French nationality students, for that matter. As a result of two judgments from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) – one against Belgium, one against Austria – related to their respective university admission policies which were discriminating against EU nationals, a solution had to be found to contain the massive influx of foreigners in medical studies. Both countries have decided to limit the access of foreign (i.e. also EU) nationals by imposing medical student quotas – 75% of places in Austria and 70% in Wallonia reserved for nationals – which has gotten them in disagreement with the European Commission (EC).

After long debates, the EC (in 2007) and the ECJ in a preliminary ruling (in 2010) – both acting as guardians of the EU treaties – have agreed that while imposing quotas for other EU-nationals violates the right to free movement in the EU framework, such practices could be accepted in very specific situations. That is, if the countries in question could prove that the quality of their national systems would be, without imposing such measures, at risk. This is precisely what both Austria and Wallonia have argued – that the over-presence of German and French medical students in their countries undermined their national healthcare systems, as these students would generally not stay to practice medicine in the host countries, but would rather return to their home countries (i.e. to Germany and France) upon graduation. This would, in time, generate a shortage of doctors in Austria and Wallonia. As data to support these claims were lacking in 2007, the EC granted both countries a five-year grace period. It allowed the two to keep the student quotas, but demanded that they provide, by the end of this period, evidence that the quota system is necessary to safeguard their national systems (see also ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, October 2007).

At the end of 2012, the five-year moratorium comes to an end as well. Austria, who has been in regular bilateral talks with and has annually submitted data to the EC, has advanced over the summer a letter to the European institution, asking for an extension of the moratorium until 2016. While an impact and forecast study (about the size of the medical staff contingent needed in the coming years) has already been done in Austria (and sent to the EC in July), the Austrian authorities stress that such an analysis would be much more accurate in 2016. The arguments for this are clear. The first cohort of medical students under the quota system (introduced in 2007) is only now graduating. But the official training of these students has not ended. The medical graduates need to subsequently complete a three-year residency period (“Turnus”), usually in a hospital, before they can work as doctors. It seems logical to expect that if foreign students want to go back to their home countries they would choose to do so either immediately upon graduation, or after the three-year residency period, if at all. An impact study in 2016 would in either case seem more reliable, as it would cover both potential “exit points”. It would be based on two cohorts of post-quota system students that will have graduated, as well as completed their residency periods by then.

The EC has until the end of the year to decide on the matter. While the Education Commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, has already expressed her support for the extension of the moratorium in order to obtain better quality data, the decision rests with the collegium of commissioners as a whole.

European Commission (see entry for 11 May 2012)

ORF (in German)