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European Commission challenges national student quotas

The debate over inter-EU access to higher education institutions has recently heated up as the European Commission has decided to take legal action against Austria and Belgium for limiting EU student enrolment in their universities. The infringement procedure, which begins with the issuing of an ‘official letter of formal notice’ to both Member States, affords Austria and Belgium two months to respond before proceeding to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The Austrian case, which dates back to an ECJ judgment in 2005, revolves around stringent university entry requirements (see ACA Newsletter - Education Europe, July 2005). Under the Universities Act, applicants from other EU states were essentially forced to prove that they have met the conditions for entering a higher education institution in their home country, such as passing entrance exams. This, as well as last year’s cap limiting foreign student intake to 25%, is arguably a measure to deter the vast amount of German medical students taking Austrian medical degrees simply to return to practice in their home country after their studies. The Austrians feel that such student mobility is jeopardising to their health care, as strong German students are taking the place of local students. Nonetheless, the ECJ held that the Universities Act was discriminatory. Though the Austrians ceded and amended the legislation in 2005, similar entrance requirements were reintroduced in 2006, re-igniting the debate.

Though a slightly different case, the French Belgians have also been accused of student discrimination. In June 2006, the Parliament of the Communauté Française issued a decree reserving 70% of medical school places for Belgian residents. Though Belgium has also been interrogated by the ECJ is 2003, they abolished the apparent discriminatory legislation before the infringement proceedings could materialise. The 2006 decree is thus considered a new infringement.

As the Danes have also expressed concern about the influx of EU medical students (specifically from Sweden), several ministries voiced the need to address such issues at the EU level. That university ‘discrimination’ seems to fall in one field (medecine) in repeated cases is perhaps indicative that EU must re-evaluate how it tackles this problem.

European Commission press release