Protesters fight plan to levy fees

October 6, 2000

Austria's controversial right-of-centre government has for the first time since its formation in February met an opponent more formidable than the European Union, its "wise men" and Jacques Chirac combined: the student body.

The government wants to introduce university tuition fees of about Pounds 500 a year from October 2001 in an effort to reduce the budget deficit.

Higher education has been free since 1971. Students argue that the move to charge fees would break a human rights treaty that guarantees free education, which was signed by Austria in 1978.

The students are planning regular demonstrations this semester. They have the support of many professors, who argue that fees will do nothing to improve the quality of university education.

Austrian universities are overcrowded, with dilapidated lecture halls and poor staff-to-student ratios. Queues to get on PCs that allow internet access add to a long list of student complaints that successive governments have found hard to tackle.

Before the summer recess, science minister Elisabeth Gehrer of the conservative People's Party bluntly stated her opposition to fees, and students demonstrated outside government buildings.

The government miscalculated the strength of feeling its hastily thought-out austerity plan would unleash.

Opinion polls show a high degree of public sympathy with the plight of the students, with 58 per cent opposing fees. The government is now watering down its plans, with promises of better grants for the less well-off.

It is doubtful whether these policies will solve the problems at the universities. At the moment, the government is in danger of losing public support in return for little net revenue.

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