Salzburg SPÖ says students should be charged

Salzburg’s Social Democrats (SPÖ) have made their appeal for tuition fees official.

The provincial branch of the SPÖ supported a draft bill created by the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) yesterday (Weds). SPÖ and ÖVP plan to finalise their concept for an appeal to the federal government coalition next week. This decision could intensify the ongoing discussion about a reintroduction of tuition fees.

The federal ÖVP supports a comeback of the charges which were scrapped in 2008 when all parliament factions but the ÖVP passed a draft bill. Austria never charged students before 2001 when a coalition of ÖVP and Freedom Party (FPÖ) decided to introduce the fees. The parties claimed that the move would improve the condition of students and lecturers as well as the quality of higher education. It dismissed accusations that young people coming from poor families were kept from studying this way. ÖVP and FPÖ made aware at that time that those who could not afford the fees were freed from paying them.

ÖVP Science Minister Karlheinz Töchterle prefers allowing Austria’s 21 public universities to charge fees autonomously. The minister, who was sworn in last April, said the institutions should be allowed to determine the sums themselves. Töchterle also stressed that he finished creating a concept for what he described as a “socially balanced system of tuition fees”.

SPÖ Salzburg Governor Gabi Burgstaller pointed out yesterday that it mattered a lot to her that social fairness was not forgotten in the case of a possible comeback of the tuition fees. Her party’s initiative for a reintroduction comes after she declared her support for a well considered system of fees in an interview.

Yesterday’s developments angered the SPÖ’s youth movement and the Association of Socialist Students (VSStÖ). The VSSTtÖ said Burgstaller must step down. The governor argued this appeal only proved that “some circles in the SPÖ refused to hold any kind of discussion”.

Töchterle said last week that Austria’s universities could look back on a “success story”. The minister also deplored that their budgets failed to meet the increasing demand for higher education as student figures soared. He explained that the number of students shot up by 22 per cent between 2007 and 2010 when 284,000 people were registered at the country’s public universities. More than 23.6 per cent of them were foreigners, according to the minister. He said these developments must convince the SPÖ of the reasonability of tuition fees.

Around 51,100 people worked for the 21 state-funded universities in 2010, 12 per cent more than in 2007. Around 2,200 of them are lecturers and professors, according to the science minister’s figures. Austria spent 2.5 billion Euros on its universities in 2007 – only 0.93 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). The state’s investments rose to 1.05 per cent of GDP or nearly four million Euros. Töchterle said tuition fees should come into force again shortly. He expressed hopes for government-internal accord for charges from autumn.

Peter Kaiser, who heads the SPÖ’s department in the province of Carinthia, said earlier this month that everyone who graduated from Austria’s public universities should have to pay 20 Euros a month until their retirement. Kaiser said people who did not finish their studies as well as everybody who paid tuition fees between 2001 and 2008 should be spared from transferring the monthly charge. The SPÖ Carinthia leader added that no one with an annual income below 40,000 Euros must be taxed that way either.

Töchterle made clear that he disagreed with Kaiser’s concept. The science minister called on the SPÖ to give the go-ahead to the suggested system of tuition fees he presented last year. Töchterle – who headed Innsbruck University before joining the ÖVP’s team of ministers – said his concept would ensure that no one must pay more than 1,000 Euros per academic year.