Outrage at 'spies in seminar' ploy

February 13, 1998

CASPAR Einem, Austria's education minister, wants to send spies into universities to root out poor teaching and absentee professors who do not carry out their teaching requirements.

The secret observers, posing as students, would make reports to the education ministry and to the universities concerned, Mr Einem said in an interview with the Austrian daily Der Standard.

Professors would get feedback and advice about how to improve their teaching and universities could take disciplinary action against truant professors, said the Social Democrat minister.

No one would be sacked for a first offence. "But we must at least say: 'my friend, either you turn up or we will take action'," Mr Einem said.

The spies would also tackle unenthusiastic and uninspired lecturers. "Professors who once wrote a book in the 1980s and since then have done nothing but regurgitate its contents have to be stopped."

Mr Einem said the professional observers would help bring problem cases out into the open.

He claimed students found it hard to report problem professors, fearing it would affect their chances. He believes the universities are not taking action. At present, the education ministry was often being asked to follow up problem cases, he said.

But the education minister's plan outraged university rectors and professors. Peter Skalicky, chairman of the Austrian Rectors' Conference, called it an "atrocity".

"It is revolting, it has never yet happened in the Second Republic and it does not exist in any other country," he said.

He admitted there were some shortcomings in Austrian universities. But he added: "It is not true that the universities are incapable of dealing with them."

Last year Mr Einem signed a new regulation introducing teaching evaluation. Professor Skalicky said universities were still coming to grips with the new system.

"The rectors' conference believes the minister has the wrong priorities," he said.

The biggest problems facing the universities were over-long study periods, the high dropout rate and the need to raise Austria's profile in international research, the organisation says.

Professor Skalicky, who is rector of the Technical University of Vienna, suggested the minister put professional observers into his own ministry since it did not operate all that well in terms of personnel and budget management. "Perhaps we should disguise ourselves as civil servants and sneak into the ministry," he added.

Alfred Ebenbauer, rector of Vienna University, said the plan reminded him of police-state methods.

He said the minister should use the money he planned to spend on spies to provide him with a budget allowing him to offer a better service structure.

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