Austrian students are traditionally a good-natured, non-violent lot. One has to go back to 1848 to find real student radicalism. It is a standard joke that in Austria the May revolt of 1968 lasted only 15 minutes and most of the "revolutionaries" missed it because they were sitting in one of Vienna's coffee houses.
But the present student protest against the coalition government's Sparpaket (saving package) has brought more than 40,000 students on to the streets of Vienna in one of its biggest postwar demonstrations.
The Sparpaket is an unprecedentedly comprehensive and painful set of public spending cuts designed to curb the growth of budget deficits and to bring Austria in line with the Maastricht criteria for a European Union single currency. Over the next two years higher education is expected to contribute one billion schillings (Pounds 62 million) to the cuts. Most of this is to come from the abolition of student benefits and a reduction in the pay for supplementary teaching by university assistants and lecturers.
Students will lose free travel between home and place of study; in Vienna they will have to pay Pounds 300 per year for a transport pass. Most students will also be affected by the ending of family allowance when exceeding the minimum period of a course of study by more than two semesters. At present family allowance is payable up to age 26 which is thought to be one reason why Austrian students take a long time to complete their studies.
Assistants and lecturers are angered at the prospect of a sudden loss of income. While the student population more than quadrupled from 51,000 in 1970 to 210,000 in 1995, the numbers of university teachers only rose from 4,500 to 9,400. The extra teaching load was taken over by the middle ranks of university teachers. What they saw as their essential contribution to maintaining a seriously under-staffed higher education system is now defined as "academic moonlighting". Many lecturers and assistants suspended their classes and joined the protests.
Alfred Ebenbauer, the rector of the University of Vienna, Austria's biggest university with more than 67,000 students, abruptly walked out of talks at the ministry of research and science, declaring that a continuation would have been "pointless". Under heavy pressure from their rank and file the leaders of the national union of university teachers had to make a most embarrassing U-turn and withdraw the official consent they had given to the Sparpaket. Government ministers proclaim that they are open for talks but firmly insist that in the interest of the overall social balance of the cuts they are unable and unwilling to make higher education a special case.
At the core of this conflict is the big taboo of Austrian higher education policy: free open access. Every Austrian holder of the upper secondary school leaving certificate is entitled to choose a university and course of study. There is no selection or procedure for the allocation of students.
Overcrowding and inefficient use of staff and resources are endemic. At the University of Vienna more than 6,000 students read psychology, more than 4,000 political science. While politicians officially reject the numerus clausus many departments have waiting lists and other restrictive practices which cost many students additional semesters.
Successive ministers of finance have argued that a mass system of higher education can no longer be maintained adequately without individual contributions. They also point out that the status quo is not socially fair but heavily biased through social self-selection.
The proportion of working-class students has remained constant at around 13 per cent since the 1970s. The group that profited most from increased participation is middle-class females.
A growing number of politicians admit that income-related, staggered study fees would be much fairer than the indiscriminating "lawnmower" cuts of student benefits. But a fundamental policy change is still considered politically impossible.