Free and easy admissions leave Vienna’s universities swamped

Largely without tuition fees and open to all, institutions have seen their intakes soar
Big draw: UniVie’s Great Reading Hall © Karl F. Schöfmann

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Martina Chizzali, who is from Italy, chose the University of Vienna for two reasons: the city is beautiful and she did not want to study for Italian medical universities’ tough entrance exams.

“For the Italian test, I’d have to study. The one in Vienna I passed the first time [without studying],” she says.

Fellow student Karin Stanger is delighted that, with only a few exceptions, anyone who wants to can attend university. Theresa Ruhdorfer decided on “UniVie”, as it is called, because her friends were there. Miriam Plangger is happy not to have to pay tuition because living in Vienna is expensive enough.

None of these students says that they study in Vienna for its academic rigour. That says a lot about the problems at the city’s 10 public universities.

A 2008 election promise by the government to abolish tuition fees, coupled with low admission standards, have created an explosion in the number of students enrolled at Vienna’s universities. Many are from the EU, some of whom could not get into universities at home.

Because funding has not kept up, standards are slipping; lectures with 500 students are common and smaller seminars fill up quickly. Ten years ago the University of Vienna, Austria’s top-placed institution, ranked 87th in the QS list of top universities. It is now 153rd.

The ranking does not appear to worry students. “I get this feeling that if we just concentrate on a ranking, we miss other things,” says Camila del Pilar Garfias, co-head of the university’s student council.

Quality does, however, concern Heinz Engl, rector of the university, which was founded in 1365. With 93,000 students, UniVie is Europe’s largest, but not necessarily best university, he admits.

“We want students to come here because of the quality, not because it’s cheaper,” he says, or because they could not get into another institution.

“Our size is not a blessing,” Prof Engl adds, noting that on some degree courses, such as political science or communications, the student-to-faculty ratio can be as high as 200:1. “We are in a precarious situation in some fields.”

Compared with universities in Munich or Zurich, Vienna’s higher institutions are underfunded, understaffed and poorly equipped, he says.

A decade ago, UniVie had about 65,000 students. The rise of nearly 50 per cent happened because access to Austrian universities is free and easy. Anyone with a high school diploma recognised in the EU can join most courses.

About two-thirds of foreign students at UniVie are German. They make up a quarter of the foreign population at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. Both stress that they welcome the diversity foreign students bring, but want to change why they come.

“The motivation is not the best one. They come here because they do not get a place in Germany,” says Prof Engl. “And, of course, they speak the same language. But Germany is 10 times the size [of Austria] so any small overflow has a very big impact.”

Because technical colleges in Austria have enrolment limits, students who are not accepted may go to university instead. Also, the degrees that do have admission requirements and caps put stress on the fields that do not. For example, students who cannot get into the Medical University of Vienna enrol in UniVie’s biology or chemistry degrees.

Open enrolment is a large part of why UniVie has a 30 per cent graduation rate, one of the lowest in Europe.

Funding is also a chronic problem. According to the OECD, Austria invests 4.9 per cent of its gross domestic product on education, slightly below the OECD average of 5.3 per cent.

Prof Engl says that state money to help relieve overloaded teaching staff leads to a vicious circle. As soon as prospective students learn that more faculty have been hired, they begin to enrol in a department again. “What we really need is a political statement limiting enrolment,” he says.

The picture is not all is negative. UniVie has 36 European research grants, about the same as peers in Munich and Zurich, and its quantum physics department remains one of the best anywhere, as do its Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies departments. The university also has the largest Slavic languages department in the world.

Vienna’s Institute for Molecular Biology is considered one of the top in Europe and a new campus opened last year for the Vienna University of Economics and Business. It is listed 43rd of 85 in the FT’s ranking of European business schools.

Prof Engl is pushing the government to help fund a research cluster that would bring together three Vienna universities, research academies and business. That, too, costs money and with the government focusing increasingly on funding integration programmes for refugees there are fewer euros to spend on research. “Before the refugee crisis we were on a good trajectory,” he says.

The 651-year-old university, founded by Emperor Rudolf II, had 5,000 students in its infancy — at that time one of the largest student bodies on the continent. The reason? Vienna was much cheaper for both tuition and living costs than other cities, such as Paris.

“This seems to be a sort of tradition,” Prof Engl says.

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