Austrian universities flop in global study

No Austrian university has made the new Times Higher Education Ranking.

Vienna University, Austria’s biggest higher education institution, was the only Austrian university listed last year. It was part of the group of universities placed between 91st and 100th in the Times Higher Education Ranking of 2011. The study includes detailed information on the world’s 50 best universities and lists 50 more institutions in groups of 10. Vienna University is not featured in the Times Higher Education Ranking 2012 which was presented yesterday (Weds).

Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, managed to defend its leadership. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology stayed in second place in the survey – which is based on the verdicts of more than 17,000 leading academics from 149 countries – ahead of the University of Cambridge. In 2011, the renowned British institute also ranked third.

Seven of the 10 best institutions are American universities, and all have strict restrictions regarding the number of students. They also charge high tuition fees while Austrian law keeps the alpine country’s 21 public universities from doing so. However, some could soon start charging students again for the first time in four years due to certain legal uncertainties – and their worsening financial situation.

All federal parliament factions but the People’s Party (ÖVP) supported a draft bill to abolish general tuition fees in 2008. The decision was widely seen as a present to voters since it occurred shortly before a federal election. The Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) increased their share in the ballot. All other main political movements had to accept losses.

The Austrian Constitutional Court (VfGH) declared the tuition fee law as null and void last year due to formulation mistakes last year. Judges said the government of Social Democrats (SPÖ) and ÖVP should correct the bill. The coalition partners failed to do so. The feud between the parties – which are at odds about whether tuition fees are reasonable and socially acceptable – worsened over the past months. Initially, the VfGH wanted the government coalition to repair the legal frame of the issue by March 1, 2012.

ÖVP Science Minister Karlheinz Töchterle wants to reintroduce tuition fees of 1,000 Euros a year or less, but the SPÖ board blocks such attempts. However, the number of SPÖ members declaring their willingness to negotiate a fair and balanced system of charges is increasing.

Austria’s 21 state-funded universities must not charge students from Austria and the European Union’s (EU) other 26 member states while people coming from third countries must pay in some cases. Research group OGM was conducted by newspaper Die Presse last month to find out students’ opinion about the issue. A majority of 52 percent would appreciate a comeback of tuition fees. Around 42 per cent oppose this option.

Twenty-two percent said the number of students should not surpass a certain limit in the most popular courses and lectures while 24 percent spoke out against an introduction of any kind of restrictions of such kind. Almost one in two students (48 percent) said that limits should be established in all studies. OGM – which interviewed 500 students – said more female than male students would appreciate such restrictions.