ÖH attacks minister as tuition fees dispute intensifies

The Austrian Students’ Union (ÖH) has accused Science Minister Karlheinz Töchterle of refusing to face the facts.

ÖH officials said yesterday (Mon) the member of the People’s Party’s (ÖVP) team of ministers “must accept reality” and ensure public subsidies of the 21 state-funded universities of Austria. ÖH leaders made the science minister aware of a study conducted by juridical experts that higher education institutions owned by the state must not charge students under the current education laws.

Töchterle recently assigned constructional experts to find out whether Austria’s public universities could introduce fees again from the coming academic year. The investigation – which revealed that the institutions may do so – was carried out shortly after a check by experts assigned by the Social Democrats (SPÖ) which the ÖH made aware of yesterday.

Time is running out for Töchterle and the ÖVP’s coalition partner concerning the issue after the Constitutional Court (VfGH) annulled a law which led to the abolition of tuition fees which were most recently in effect between 2001 and 2008. While the SPÖ claimed that the court’s decision kept universities from introducing fees, the science minister said the opposite.

He angered SPÖ science issues spokeswoman Andrea Kuntzl by publicly encouraging the 21 universities to start charging students autonomously. Töchterle, who formerly headed Innsbruck University, said the higher education institutions may decide for themselves how much students must pay for attending lectures. At the same time, the science minister presented a tuition fees concept he branded as fair and socially balanced.

The SPÖ rejected the model. The party partnered up with the Greens, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) in abandoning tuition fees a few days before the general election of 2008. The decision cost the state hundreds of millions of Euros ever since while the ÖH board praised the controversial cooperation in parliament and its step as a victory for free access to higher education. However, ÖH officials also criticise the government for failing to do anything about the rising number of students starting their studies.

The ÖH board said the most recent decision to increase universities’ budgets was insufficient. It called for significantly higher subsidies to ensure high-quality courses. The Greens have also appealed to SPÖ and ÖVP to jack up investments in education and science. The FPÖ, which is headed by FPÖ Vienna-Landstraße chief Heinz-Christian Strache, is strictly against a reintroduction of tuition fees too. The right-wing party said Austria’s banks could cope with higher taxes while ÖVP officials emphasised that the current situation meant that universities were missing out on 34 million Euros a year.

Strache said a comeback of tuition fees and possibly upcoming tax hikes could be avoided if the coalition chose a courageous reform path. He said the government should carry out the various reforms which the Federal Audit Office (RH) suggested in the past months. RH President Josef Moser – who once represented the FPÖ in parliament – claimed that none of the measures would confront the Austrian economy with further demands in these uncertain times.

Meanwhile, Salzburg University and Innsbruck University caused a stir by warning they would start charging “long-term students” and students from non-European Union (EU) countries from autumn if politicians failed to sort out the situation. The agreement from 2008 between SPÖ, Greens, FPÖ and BZÖ to abolish tuition fees included a clause which ensured that students who kept postponing their final exams and those from non-EU member states still must pay up. This disputed article of the bill heralded the VfGH’s decision to invalidate the law as a whole. The court said lawmakers must agree on a correction of the regulation by 1 March.