Hundstorfer suggests to double truancy penalty

Social Democratic (SPÖ) Labour and Social Affairs Minister Rudolf Hundstorfer has said the fines for breaches of education regulations might rise.

Hundstorfer said before the meeting of government ministers yesterday (Tues) that he could imagine to support an increase of the maximum penalty from 220 Euros to twice this amount. The labour minister once more said that the government’s focus should be on preventive measures and more spending on youth coaching and traineeships.

The labour minister’s declaration of support for higher penalties comes in the midst of a heated debate about how to stop teenagers from skipping lessons. A study carried out for the interior ministry’s integration department showed that around 75,000 residents of Austria aged between 16 and 24 were NEETs (neither in education, employment or traineeship).

There is disagreement about the exact number of truants as many schools fail to report minor breaches to superior educational institutions. Most secondary modern schools only inform district education authorities about cases of long-term truancy. People’s Party (ÖVP) Integration Secretary Sebastian Kurz said only a manifold set of measures could help improve the situation – but also spoke out in support of higher fines.

Kurz suggested that families whose kids were caught staying away from school for a considerable number of days or for a few hours now and then unauthorised over a long period of time should be charged 1,500 Euros. SPÖ Education Minister Claudia Schmied said the maximum penalty could be increased as it was not adapted for more than two decades. Schmied also warned from putting needy families’ future at risk by introducing an excessive increase of fines for truancy and other serious offences.

Reports have it that Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek, the SPÖ’s minister for civil servants, reacted infuriated to a remark of the integration secretary. Kurz said it was not acceptable that illegal parking was a more costly offence in Austria in some cases than truancy. Heinisch-Hosek – who is a teacher by profession herself – allegedly ordered Kurz to stop comparing cars with children.

The question whether truants should face stricter sanctions is just one educational issue SPÖ and ÖVP disagree about. The parties are pressurised to make changes to the current tuition fees regulation as a law passed in 2008 was declared void by judges. The Federal Constitutional Court (VfGH) ordered the parliament to correct the existing university law because of detailed errors in juridical formulations.

The law says that students from countries which are not part of the European Union (EU) as well as every student who failed to make any progress must pay fees. All other students registered at Austria’s 21 public universities are freed from paying tuition fees since SPÖ, Greens, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) agreed on getting rid of them around four years ago.

The VfGH’s verdict means that the government must pass a corrected law by March. The SPÖ-ÖVP administration does not depend on the support of the opposition as its simple majority in seats is sufficient in this concern. However, the parties are still miles away from mutual consent. The SPÖ board claims that the court’s ruling means that there must be no tuition fees for anybody while the ÖVP thinks the decision enables universities to charge students. ÖVP Science Minister Karlheinz Töchterle said the 21 institutions should start doing so “from autumn or earlier”. Töchterle made this suggestion after the SPÖ kept rejecting his ideas for a new system of “socially fair” tuition fees.

SPÖ Chancellor Werner Faymann yesterday warned the heads of Austria’s public universities from charging students autonomously while ÖVP Vice Chancellor Michael Spindelegger signalised support for this step. The ÖVP chairman claimed allowing universities to set up tuition fees of amounts they consider as justified would be a “very good option”.