Ailing academy: the University of Vienna has sunk down the global rankings

The University of Vienna is one of the world’s oldest, dating back some 650 years, and boasts a long list of Nobel Prize winners among its former faculty. But today, there is an atmosphere of gloom in the university’s imposing main building on Vienna’s Ringstrasse.

The university has dropped to embarrassingly low positions in most international rankings that measure scientific relevance and educational quality. And because of an excess of students – there are 91,000 enrolled – and tighter financial constraints, teaching and studying have become a frustrating and even painful experience for many.

The same is true of most universities in Austria. The combination of an open-access policy, exemption from tuition fees for almost all students and stagnant contributions from the government coffers has undermined the quality of teaching in the most popular subjects and is damaging the country’s economic prospects.

In overcrowded departments such as psychology and politics, there is one full professor for every 400 students. Lecture halls fill up hours before the classes start, and even for compulsory seminars students have to line up at four o’clock in the morning to grab one of the scarce spots.

“It is not as disastrous as often depicted, but given that Austria is one of the richest countries in the world, there is a lot of room for improvement,” says Hans Pechar, an education expert.

The misery is mostly the consequence of political decisions taken during recent decades. Like in the rest of Europe, the public universities were opened up to the masses in the 1970s. But as enrolment increased, public funds did not grow accordingly and were practically frozen following the recent financial and economic crisis.

Unlike Germany, Austria never instituted a selective admissions process but took in anyone with a Matura, the high-school diploma equivalent to the English A-level. A previous conservative government instituted tuition fees of €363 a term a decade ago, but even that puny contribution was abolished just before the 2008 parliamentary election.

Contrary to its promises, the government did not make up the shortfall. Austria’s university presidents claim the institutions need an extra €1bn to overcome the present paralysis.

The constant tussling between the two coalition parties, the Social Democratic party (SPÖ) and the conservative Austrian People’s party (ÖVP), has exacerbated the problems in recent years. Karlheinz Töchterle, the conservative minister in charge of the universities, wants an admissions process that would allow departments to limit the number of university entrants, and would also like to see moderate tuition fees reinstated.

The SPÖ resists both measures, arguing it would prevent children from low-income families from entering higher education. But critics say most students come from a middle-class background and enjoy free study paid for by the public.

Enrolments shot up when the European Court of Justice ruled in 2005 that Austria had to grant all EU students the same free access as it does its own citizens. Thousands of German students who did not meet the tough entrance criteria at home crossed the border to Austria, causing havoc in disciplines such as medicine and psychology.

Admissions to Austria’s four medical universities – Vienna, Graz, Innsbruck and Salzburg – subsequently became highly selective, and this month the government agreed on stricter admission standards for several other subjects, including architecture, biology and computer science.

The government’s ultimate goal is to switch to a fixed payment for every enrolled student. But the Social Democrats still resist any move that would reduce attendance, pointing to the government’s aim of boosting educational qualifications in the workforce.

However, even though up to a third of registered students in some departments hardly attend classes, they nevertheless tie up university resources.

“There is not a single good argument for open access,” says Mr Pechar. “That really needs to change.”

Ironically, the country’s technical colleges, the Fachhochschulen, all have admission processes and charge students for tuition. As they often offer a better quality of education, the large research universities have become a sanctuary for students who do not make it into a Fachhochschule.

The quality of research at the large universities is often better than the rankings suggest, Mr Pechar says, and the universities have learnt in recent years to gain access to public grants.

The main beneficiary of public support has been the new Institute of Science and Technology (IST Austria), which opened its leafy campus in Klosterneuburg on the outskirts of Vienna in 2009. It received €500m from the provincial government of Lower Austria (Niederösterreich) for construction and was pledged €1.3bn from federal coffers over a 20-year period. In addition, it gained €27m in grants from the European Research Council and other sources, and raised €17m in private donations – an area where the universities have lagged behind so far.

The generosity for IST Austria is controversial among university officials and teachers. “Universities are treated unfairly,” says Mr Pechar. “It would have much been better to strengthen existing clusters of excellence.”

Other experts say, however, that if Austria wants to compete again in world-class research, IST Austria may be its best bet.

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