Austria’s new conservative and far-Right coalition government plans to introduce university tuition fees and to change the law so that the national students’ union would not be able to protest against its funding reforms.
The country’s universities are also concerned that the new government, led by the centre-Right People’s Party (ÖVP), with the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPÖ) as junior partner, will use its powers to appoint far-Right figures to their boards.
The coalition, which was sworn in on 18 December, has pledged to introduce “moderate” tuition fees, although it is unclear how high they will be.
International students in Austria currently have to pay about €1,500 (£1,333) a year, although the coalition agreement says that tuition fees should increase private spending on tertiary education to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average – which observers say would imply annual fees of about €10,000.
Oliver Vitouch, president of Universities Austria and rector of Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt, said that there was some fear among Austrian universities that fees could “quickly increase to UK levels”.
But some form of fees could increase the “commitment” to study among students in a country where the dropout rate is huge, he added. The coalition agreement includes multiple measures to bring down the dropout rate, such as deregistration for “inactive” students and a requirement for undergraduates to accumulate a certain number of credits in the first semester.
The programme also proposes changing the legal mandate of the Austrian Students’ Union (ÖH) so that it must use its funds “exclusively” for student guidance and lobbying in order to improve “services for students”. Professor Vitouch said that this would “mute” the union on political issues – for example fees.
Dominated by left-wing factions, the students’ union has been politically “idealist” rather than pragmatic in the past, “but that’s the point”, he said.
Florian Berger, a spokesman for the ÖH, said: “They [the coalition] are trying to silence us...by changing the law and our legal position.”
Legally stopping the ÖH from engaging in politics would make it easier for the government to introduce tuition fees, he said, which the union has said would force poorer students out of university. The move was also down to animosity from the FPÖ – whose leader has been accused of spending part of his youth in the neo-Nazi scene – which resented the students’ union’s “targeting of right-wing extremists”, Mr Berger argued.
Professor Vitouch also raised concerns about the neo-Nazi links of some members of the FPÖ, and worried that such figures could find their way on to university boards. The government has the power to appoint nearly half of Austrian university board members on the recommendation of the science minister, and new names are due before March, he explained. “These persons and political perspectives…just give me the creeps,” he said.
But he welcomed other aspects of the new government programme, particularly an emphasis on “de-bureaucratisation” in higher education and the intention to build up an “excellence initiative”, encouraging competitive calls for research funding. This, he hoped, would bring more money for Austria's research council, which was “really underfunded” in comparison with Germany and Switzerland and was “in a sorry state in terms of funding”.
Questions to the Ministry of Science, Research and Economy did not receive a response before Times Higher Education’s deadline.