Changes end cafe culture

April 16, 1999

"You'll never have university education (in the UK) up to the standard of Austria," said a student reading Dickens in Vienna's Cafe Benno, among companions playing chess and cribbage. "You haven't enough cafes."

Now Austria is planning radical changes in its comprehensive but notoriously leisurely higher education system to bring it closer to the UK and others in Europe.

The main change is the abolition of the "magister" awards, similar to the UK master of arts, and the introduction of separate bachelors and masters degrees. But most radical is the stipulation of maximum course lengths and, in the ordinary degree, a more rigid structure with no opportunity to postpone exams.

Depending on the course, the new BA must be completed in three or four years, and the MA within a further year. The magister award has a minimum study period of four to five years, but many students take far longer.

Elizabeth Maravic, 31, a book translator, took nine-and-a-half years to get her magister. She said this was common. She would welcome three years of intensive study for financial reasons. "It is possible to survive on a grant for three years, but when it goes on and on, life becomes very difficult. Then you are tempted to take a job, which leaves less time for study."

But Andreas Zahalka of Vienna Technical University's student council rejects the reforms. He said the strictly prescribed curriculum and exams "would mean a grave intrusion on the study freedom of students".

Outside the coalition government, the Green Party also opposes the move. Spokesperson Madeleine Petrovic said: "Critical thought and contemplation seem less important to the government than the streamlining of the use of students in the future."

Freedom of study has been an emotional touchstone of Austrian academia since 1848, interrupted only by the country's Nazi period. In 1848 professors and students led the revolution against Prince Metternich's police state with its suppression of the study of the arts, which Metternich thought a breeding ground for dissent.

The move towards the three-cycle (ordinary and higher degree and doctorate) was promoted to the European Union by France, Germany, Holland and the UK in their Sorbonne Declaration in May 1998. There has been some objection to the influence of just four countries, but ten EU countries already comply in some way.

"We are not an island in the middle of the Atlantic," said Sigurd Hoellinger, who heads the Austrian government's university department. He points out that the country's universities must be part of a wider European system of mobility for students.

Will employers tend to shun the new bachelors of arts in favour of the more highly qualified magisters? "That may be a problem at first," said Dr Hoellinger, adding the government must get involved by changing its hiring policies and influencing others'. He expects about 30 per cent of students to proceed to the higher degrees.

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