Higher Education in Austria

The General Act for University Education of 1966 and the University Organization Act of 1975 provide the legal framework for tertiary education, and the federal Ministry for Science and Research funds and oversees education at the university level. Austria's 23 public and 13 private universities enjoy a high degree of autonomy and offer a full spectrum of degree programs. Established in 1365, the University of Vienna is Austria's oldest and largest university.

As a result of the reforms since the 1960s, the university system has changed from one serving the elite to one serving the masses. The growing number of students at Austrian universities reflects the liberalization of educational policy at secondary and higher levels. Between the 1955-56 and 1991-92 academic years, the number of students enrolled in institutions of higher education increased from about 19,000 to more than 200,000. The number of students beginning university-level education after completing the AHS program also increased and amounted to 85% in 1990, compared with 60% in the mid-1960s.

Traditionally, students were free to enroll at any (public) university and in any subject they wished to. It is even possible to enroll in several subject fields concurrently (which is often done by gifted students to signal their abilities to the job market). Recently, restrictions in a number of fields have been introduced. Currently, the affected subjects are: Biology, Human Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Medicine, Pharmacology, Psychology, Journalism and Economic Sciences.

The reforms also meant that university education ceased to be a male privilege. Between the 1960-61 and 1991-92 academic years, the proportion of female students enrolling at universities rose from 23 to 44%. Yet, although women account for almost half of the students at university level, only 2% of professors at institutions of higher learning were women in 1990.

Despite the increase in the numbers of university students and the greater presence of women, universities remain primarily the domain of middle- and higher-income groups. The proportion of students from working-class backgrounds doubled from 7 to 14%, and the number of these from agricultural backgrounds increased from less than 2% to more than 4% between 1960 and 1990. But children of white-collar workers, civil servants, and the self-employed accounted for more than 80% of enrollments at Austrian institutions of higher education in the early 1990s.

The country's university system was free until 2001; since then studies have been subject to fees (€366 per term for Austrian citizens, about €700 per term for non-Austrians). There are some non-state exceptions to this, where students can still study for a subsidized education, for example within the campus system of the English Teacher Training College. In 2008, however, the government decided to abolish fees for students who complete their studies in the minimum time and are EU/EEA citizens, but not for others.

Increased accessibility to university-level education has a number of consequences. The dramatic expansion in the number of students led to overcrowding at many institutions. Some critics maintain that the increasing number of students diminishes the overall quality of university-level education despite increases in federal investment. One obvious problem was that more than 50% of students enrolled at universities in the 1980s dropped out before obtaining a degree. Complex reasons account for this high drop-out rate. Some students simply enrolled to acquire student benefits; others study for the sake of personal enrichment without really intending to get a degree. Some are unable to complete their studies for financial reasons. Although a university degree provides students with a substantial amount of social status and better income opportunities, there has been an increase in "academic unemployment," especially among degree-holders in the humanities and social sciences.

Fachhochschulen (Universities of Applied Sciences) since the 1990s
During the 1990s, Austria introduced Fachhochschulen (University of Applied Sciences) in addition to the traditional universities. The training at these colleges is more tailored to practically applicable professional skills. Furthermore, students are allowed much less liberty in choosing which and how many courses they take during a given semester, which ensures that virtually all students graduate within the prescribed time (usually three years for the bachelor's degree).

Private Universities since 2001
Accreditation of private universities started in 2001, based on a federal law (Universitäts-Akkreditierungsgesetz). Accreditation includes the right to legally grant academic degrees. The Akkreditierungsrat (accreditation council) evaluates applicants and issues recommendations to the responsible accreditation authority, the Federal Ministry of Education, Science, and Cultural Affairs. Accreditations must be renewed regularly and can be withdrawn, e.g. in case of repeated academic misconduct. In 2003, the accreditation of International University Vienna was withdrawn. In 2006, when the accreditation of Imadec University expired, the accreditation council rejected the request for renewal. Today (2011), 13 private universities are accredited (listed here).

The Gehrer-Schüssel reforms
The former Minister of Education, Elisabeth Gehrer, of the Schüssel government, has enacted extensive reforms to the higher education system -- sometimes referred to as the Gehrer-Schüssel reforms -- during the last years. Effective 2003, universities have become independent juristic persons and have been given considerably more discretion by the law to act without ministerial control. However, codetermination of professors, junior teachers and students has been replaced by a more hierarchical system with a powerful management on top. The university councils, whose members are in part appointed by the government, are in charge of appointing the senior managers (Rektorat) and overseeing their activity.

Three medical universities (Vienna, Graz and Innsbruck) have been separated from their previous almae matres, and after undergoing the appropriate accreditation procedure two other private universities have now been established. Newly appointed professors are no longer government employees, and universities are supposed to compete with each other.

In spite of the potential the increased flexibility gives to universities, there are some severe problems with the reform. First, budgets have not been increased (except to account for inflation), even though it is more expensive to hire professors as private employees, because of taxes and increased social insurance contributions.

Universities are not able to select students for admission, and they are not permitted to penalize students who abuse free access to university and free choice in studies. Moderate tuition fees were introduced in 2001, which are supposed to create a small incentive for students to graduate more quickly.

Academic degrees
In Austria, there is no institution comparable to the American college or to the American professional school. Students enroll in one (or more) field of studies, in which they are expected to graduate after four to six years. Since the 1970s, the first degree was the Magister (= Latin for Master, abbr. Mag.) in the humanities, economic and social sciences, law and natural sciences. The first degree in engineering and agriculture is the Diplom-Ingenieur (abbr. Dipl.-Ing. or DI). Recently, and in accordance with the Bologna process, many universities have begun to introduce a bachelor's degree also, which comes before the "Magister" or Master.

Medicine is left as the subject where a doctorate is the only degree (after at least six years). In most subject fields, students need to submit a Diplomarbeit, a research paper of an average of about 100 pages, but sometimes considerably longer. As the requirements differ strongly and are not always clear, some students spend years working on this thesis, thus (usually not deliberately) delaying graduation.

Postgraduate degrees such as LL.M.s and MBAs have been introduced since the 1990s.

However, with the Bologna process, Austria has committed to transform its system to the structure of distinguishing between Bachelor and Master degrees (of 3 years and 1-2 years respectively). In some fields, it is still not clear how this will be made compatible with the traditional requirements necessary to enter a regulated profession.