Trouble next door

August 8, 2013

Owing to a common language and geographical proximity, but also because of low tuition fees and comparatively low entrance requirements, Austria’s universities are extremely popular with German students. Vienna and the border town of Salzburg are especially tempting. Indeed, according to a recent article on the German Suddeutsche.de website, about one out of every 10 students in the Alpine republic is German and the numbers have risen dramatically over the past few years. In some subjects, Germans comprise 80 per cent of the cohort.

Not surprisingly, many people in the far smaller state are feeling rather overwhelmed by the presence of their neighbours and are railing against this state of affairs. The term “Piefke-Alarm” is being bandied about in the media, Piefke being a rather derogatory Austrian term for Germans, referring to arrogance and self-importance.

The whole affair is far from the ugly racism of the slogan “Stoppt die Überfremdung” (Stop the Flood of Foreigners) that one used to hear from the late extreme-right politician Jörg Haider, but clearly both the Austrian Ministry of Science and many students are unhappy.

A recent legal case has highlighted problems that could be caused by the number of German students in Austria. A medical graduate was awarded damages after a court upheld his claim that his studies took excessively long because of a lack of places at the Medical University of Graz. The state was obliged to compensate him for living expenses, tuition fees and lost earnings. Austria now fears a flood of such claims.

Karlheinz Töchterle, the science and research minister, wants to limit German citizens’ access to Austria’s universities in order to ensure sufficient space for local students. He has complained that the situation is so severe that Austrians feel they are being squeezed out of their own higher education system. This could, he warned, turn into anti-European sentiment. He is not wrong, as there have been calls in Austria to exit the European Union for precisely this reason.

There is already a quota reserving three-quarters of medical school places for applicants with Austrian school-leaving certificates, although Mr Töchterle has denied that there were plans to extend restrictions to other fields of study. In any event, the European Commission very grudgingly accepted this particular quota, and only until 2016. It is therefore not quite clear what the Austrians have in mind. Any efforts to shut out German students are legally precarious, since all citizens of EU nations must have parity of access to any member state’s government services (including publicly funded higher education) with that nation’s own citizens.

Emotions are running high on the issue. Some critics of Austria’s increasingly cold shoulder point out that it is happy to accept qualified German doctors and engineers even as it complains about students. Meanwhile, Germans who live in Austria and whose children were born there are concerned: will they be excluded from Austrian universities merely because of their citizenship? It has been noted that Austria may not actually have a specific problem. After accounting for the great difference in population between the two countries, figures suggest that Germany has about the same proportion of foreign students as Austria. So why all the jammern (whingeing) in Austria?

What is surely equally important is the fact that resentments can quickly surface between these two culturally very strongly related nations. But given similar friction within the UK, between Australia and New Zealand, and even between northern and southern Germany, perhaps this is a neighbourly inevitability.

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