Political deadlock on charging tuition fees causes chaos for universities

Public universities are unable to charge tuition fees this summer semester as a result of the Austrian government’s failure to come up with a new framework for fees in time.

Earlier regulations were declared unconstitutional and moves by institutions to reintroduce fees on their own have been sharply criticised by students.

Austria introduced tuition fees at publicly funded institutions in 2000. But in 2008, a majority of Social Democrat, Freedom Party and Green members of parliament voted in favour of abolishing them for all European Union citizens (including Austrians) who completed their studies within a reasonable period.

Only students taking unduly long to graduate and students from non-EU countries were required to pay.

However, in 2011 Austria’s supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the new arrangements were unconstitutional, referring mainly to imprecise formulations.

The court demanded that the ruling Social Democrat-Austrian People’s Party coalition government present proposals for amendment by 1 March 2012, by which date the 2008 regulations were due to expire.

Abolition of fees has made Austria very popular with students from other EU countries. Around 24,000 Germans are currently studying in the country, even though most of Germany’s federal states have themselves dropped fees.

Austria has a total of just 350,000 students, compared to Germany’s two million plus. Austrian Higher Education Minister Karlheinz Töchterle, of the Austrian People’s Party, has even demanded that the country's neighbour should pay some form of compensation.

Squabbles in the coalition government have prevented progress in the fees debate, with Töchterle favouring giving institutions the say on fees and the Social Democrats criticising such an approach as irresponsible.

Towards the end of last year, Töchterle recommended in public that institutions introduce fees this spring.

But, according to Heinrich Schmidinger, president of Universities Austria, Austria’s rectors’ conference (UNIKO), there was not enough time to make new arrangements for fees ahead of the 1 March deadline.

“Politicians aren’t achieving anything because they are constantly stifling each other’s attempts to resolve the issue, and now they are passing the buck to the rectors,” Schmidinger commented bitterly.

Now, with no further steps taken by the government, institutions are worried that they will be losing around €17 million (US$22 million).

UNIKO believes that this shortfall could be compensated by the Higher Education Ministry. “This is all the more justified because the universities are not to blame for the responsible politicians having failed to meet the deadline for amendments,” says Schmidinger.

Several institutions are now seeking to charge students subject to fees under the previous regulations on their own. A reintroduction of the fees for the coming winter semester has already been officially announced by the Universities of Vienna, Graz, Innsbruck and Salzburg, where Schmidinger himself is rector.

Austria’s student union ÖH (Österreichische HochschülerInnenschaft) has sharply criticised any independent moves by institutions. In a recent open letter to university senates, students demanded legal security regarding fees, claiming that it is up to the government to set a framework.

ÖH also says that higher education institutions should assume that students who are affected by any new measures will take legal action against the fees, and warns of “legal chaos” if institutions do not “resist being pressurised by the higher education ministry”.