AUSTRIA: New plan set to bring back tuition fees

All the experts appointed to formulate recommendations for a new Austrian Higher Education Plan by Beatrice Karl, the Minister of Higher Education and Research, favour the reintroduction of tuition fees. The plan will cover the ramping up of research infrastructure and a rethink on funding.

The experts have been drawn from Switzerland and Germany, and have been charged by Karl with a focus on potential in higher education.

"We can only make a mark internationally if we concentrate on our strengths, especially given that we are in a comparatively small country," she said.

Austria, with 8.4 million inhabitants, had an overall student population of 332,624 in the winter semester of 2009-10, and numbers appear to be on the increase.

The plan is to focus on four core elements.

A tool is being developed to define how many study places are to be publicly funded and where resources are to be allocated. Here, initial concepts could already be presented by early spring.

A research infrastructure plan is to coordinate the construction of new large-scale facilities for basic research. Concepts are to be developed for the use of such facilities both by universities and by extra-university institutions. Detailed proposals will be put forward by the end of the year.

Also, the basics of a university construction plan are to be ready by late 2011, as well as the framework for a coordinating committee for higher education comprising higher education institutions and other major stakeholders. The committee is to cooperate with the ministry on the development of coordinating measures.

Hans Sünkel, the president of Uniko, Austria's Conference of Universities, welcomed the launch of the process, stating that it "addresses demands that higher education heads have been making for years".

Sünkel said he particularly looked forward to proposals on the funding of higher education places. However, he noted that the issues of regulating access to higher education and, above all, where funding is to come from, remain open questions.

Regarding access, the ruling coalition formed by the Austrian People's Party, of which Karl is a member, and the Social Democrats (SPÖ), has already made suggestions on introductory study periods in which students can assess their aptitude for their subject of choice.

"We expect a Higher Education Plan to provide a concept for the mission and structuring of the higher education sector," said Thomas Wällenberger of the student union Österreichische HochschülerInnenschaft (ÖH). "And one thing is obvious. Even the best Higher Education Plan will be pointless without the necessary funding."

Students are critical of the team of experts: Andrea Schenker-Wicki (University of Basel, Switzerland), Antonio Loprieno (President of the Swiss Rectors Conference), and Eberhard Menzel (Hochschule Ruhr West, Germany).

"Experts have been selected in a typically Austrian way," said ÖH's general secretary Mirijam Müller. "The minister handpicks the experts, who then say what she has in mind anyway - no chance of any new insights."

To provide the urgently needed extra funding for Austria's higher education system, tuition fees have been on the agenda again for some time. The country adopted a law abolishing fees for most students at universities and teacher training colleges, in particular those graduating within a prescribed period, in 2008.

At the time, Karl was an outspoken opponent of moves by the SPÖ, the Greens and the Freedom Party of Austria to scrap the fees. Now, she can reckon with the backing of her team of experts in this respect, all three of whom call for more funding for higher education and are in favour of reintroducing tuition fees.