Vienna University flops in global ranking amid study fee debate

Vienna University has been knocked down 11 places on a British research firm’s World University Ranking.QS said today (Fri) that Vienna University, the only Austrian higher education institution on the company’s top 200 list this year and in 2009, dropped from 132 to 142. The university was given just 55.27 overall points.Cambridge University in Great Britain was given a top score of 100, managing to knock Harvard from the leading position for the first time in six years. The US institution comes second, followed by archrivals Yale.ETH Zürich, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, is the best non-US or UK university in 18th place, up two spots, this year.This result comes as the debate over a reintroduction of study fees at Austrian colleges and universities intensifies.All factions represented in the federal parliament expect the People’s Party (ÖVP) teamed up to abolish the mandatory fees students have to pay for in Austria in a late night session days ahead of the 2008 general elections – which took place following the ÖVP quitting its coalition cooperation with the Social Democrats (SPÖ).The study fees were introduced by a coalition formed by the ÖVP and the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) in 2001.Both SPÖ and ÖVP agree that Austria’s universities are in need of higher subsidies to improve the quality of offered courses. But while the Social Democrats strictly rule out a comeback of fees, ÖVP Science Minister Beatrix Karl is in favour of the idea.Karl warned earlier this week several universities would need to be shut down if their budgets were not increased soon.Several courses like medicine, journalism and media studies and psychology face significantly more students at institutes across Austria than they can cope with.Thousands of students took to the streets in many Austrian cities earlier this year to express their disagreement with the European “Bologna process” which aims to create comparable and compatible academic degrees and quality assurance standards throughout the continent.Vienna University was occupied for more than two months until last January by hundreds of students angered by overcrowded courses and the low quality of lectures.Now Karl has started another attempt to try and persuade the SPÖ to back a reintroduction of study fees. She said: “Why shouldn’t the wealthier ones contribute more to the education system by paying semester fees?”The minister stressed young people from poorer families would be spared paying for studying at universities and colleges in any case.Austria invested 1.3 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) into higher education institutions in 2006. This rate is the European average, while the United States poured 2.9 per cent of its GDP into universities and other higher education institutes.Research from 2005 has shown that around one in three students quit studying at Austrian universities before graduation.Now economic experts have expressed fears the Austrian government will drastically slash its investment into education from next year as it is pressurised into reducing the state debt and budget deficit.The annual budget deficit worsened from 0.4 per cent in 2008 to 3.5 per cent the next year. This year’s deficit is expected to range around 3.8 per cent.ÖVP Finance Minister Josef Pröll said he wanted to rake in an extra 1.7 billion Euros with new or higher taxes in 2011, while reducing various government expenses by the same amount.Pröll has however – to the fury of the parliamentary opposition – remained tight-lipped about detailed plans. He announced plans to present the 2011 budget only this December, claiming this would help him and his team to react to the think tank’s research and forecasts more precisely.Greens, the FPÖ and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) have accused the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition of trying to hold back “tax cruelties” as long as possible to avoid suffering losses in the upcoming provincial elections of Styria (26 September) and Vienna (10 October).