More students as tuition fee feud continues

Five times more students will start courses at Austria’s universities when the semester starts next week than in 1970, statistics have shown.

Official data presented by Statistik Austria on Wednesday revealed that more than 265,000 people will study at the country’s universities and colleges in the upcoming semester. This is a strong increase compared to 1970 when around 53,000 students were registered. The number of foreign students shot up from 8,600 to 59,100 at the same time. Female students also managed to increase their share (1970: 24.9 per cent; 2011: 53.6 per cent).

These developments are expected to intensify the ongoing discussion over whether the government should reintroduce tuition fees. The fees came into effect following an agreement between the People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in 2001. The parties formed a coalition between 2000 and 2005. Their decision to introduce such fees for the first time in the history of the country tempted tens of thousands of people to take to the streets. The fees were abandoned three years ago following an agreement of all parties represented in the federal parliament but the ÖVP.

Karlheinz Töchterle, Austria’s independent science minister in the ÖVP’s cabinet, recently suggested universities should have the final say on the issue. The former head of Innsbruck University claimed it would be best for Austria’s ailing higher education sector if institutions were allowed to charge students. The minister said his concept was socially balanced since it would ensure that no student must fork out more than 500 Euros on fees per semester. Töchterle explained he had no intention of pressing on with the matter if the ÖVP’s current government coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPÖ), kept opposing the idea of a reintroduction. However, the minister said he was hoping for a change of mind among the Social Democrats – and for support among Austrians for his concept.

Töchterle argued the SPÖ would act “politically insensitive” if it kept calling tuition fees a social barrier while a growing number of residents of Austria backed his proposal to implement them again for the first time since 2008. Research agency Imas found that one in three Austrians (66 per cent) were in support. Especially elderly people want the government to set up these kinds of fees again. A majority of 54 per cent of Austrians of all age groups consider an amount of 300 Euros per semester as appropriate, according to the Imas poll. Only two per cent think authorities should charge students 700 Euros or more.

Political leaders are also at odds over how to react to the strong influx of foreign students. Especially the number of young Germans coming to neighbouring Austria to study to evade restrictions and fees in their homeland is expected to rise sharply in the coming years. Herbert Lochs, who heads Innsbruck’s Medical University, recently caused a stir by charging students from abroad “without any limits”. Lochs agreed universities and other higher education institutions should get the green light to charge students autonomously. He said people coming from abroad to study in Austria should be asked to hand over amounts of up to 3,000 to 5,000 Euros per semester. Lochs claimed he had already checked the European Union’s (EU) legal framework considering his idea, claiming discrimination lawsuits were unlikely.

Töcherle’s model features several exceptions for students with small incomes. Nevertheless, a U-turn among SPÖ officials is not in sight. The Austrian Social Democrats appealed no one must be kept from studying in Austria by financial barriers, claiming members of lower social classes were too strongly disadvantaged in many regards already. A comeback of tuition fees would only worsen the sociological climate in the country, Austria’s strongest party warned. Töchterle said a reintroduction of fees would go hand in hand with an increase of university budgets. The science minister explained his plan was to subsidise the country’s state-funded universities with an additional 300 million Euros per year between 2013 and 2015. Töchterle said this concept was also depending on his department’s budget – an issue he is set to hold talks about with ÖVP Finance Minister Maria Fekter.