Austrian Universities: Age of Confusion

Better To Blast the Old Structures to Pieces And Begin All Over From Square One

Opinion | Anneliese Rohrer | October 2007

To some Austrian students the beginning of the new academic year might seem like any other.

It is not. New rules apply, the one of the so-called Bologna-Process within the European Union. Whatever the initial intention to harmonise the higher education process within all member states, the new tri-part system of Bachelor, Master, PhD, is nothing less than a total breach with tradition and history.

Paul Liessmann, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna, finds harsh words for the revolutionary change at his place of work. In his book, Theorie der Unbildung, he calls the Bachelor "the degree for dropouts." Students who were or are not up to writing a thesis will be able to get a degree anyhow. Liessmann does not condemn the Bachelor-structure as such but argues that it is not suitable for countries like Austria with its very specific school system: In cold blood, he says, the universities as the country has known them for centuries – places of academic training with the traditional combination of research and teaching – are being liquidated.

Such nostalgia for traditional concepts probably is of no concern to present-day Austrian students. Liessmann, however, touches on something that will concern the students in their everyday studies – and not in a pleasant way.

The fact is that the reconstruction along the lines that the EU member states drew in Bologna in 1999 will bring confusion at the universities to a peak level. Not because of the latest reconstruction itself but because the Austrian universities have been subjected to a series of fundamental reforms repeatedly since 1993, without ever having a chance to work with the new system before the next reform took effect.

The new university organisation legislated in 1993 initiated a series of substantial changes, one the administration of the universities plus the academic personnel found difficult to get used to and to handle. The universities were partly pushed out from underneath the umbrella of the respective government departments, which up till then had the exclusive control of budgets, appointments, regulation and curriculum. The withdrawal symptoms were considerable, the speed of implemented changes therefore stunningly slow.

As one professor put it: A university should be the place for innovation and invention but the academics have passionately resisted change.

Before the reform of ’93 was fully worked out, a new law came along in 2002. And now the whole structure is altered again after five years with the previous one only half-heartedly in place.

For the first-year student this will translate into conflicting information and the realisation that the administration and the teachers will be as confused as they are. All other students who have to change to the new Bachelor-structure will face a series of hurdles to get old courses approved, to find out which courses can be credited and which are obsolete. Appointments with advisors to help them get back on track will probably be hard to come by, at least at the big universities.

Consider the student who will be directed from one office to the next, confronted with confusing instructions, while paying tuition that in the six years since implementation totally missed the initial purpose of smoothing the bureaucratic process, speeding up compulsory courses, enhancing the quality of teaching and generally improving the student-institution relationship. The frustration level of such a student is bound to rise, as more time is lost in mapping out the right course.

Those who say this is too gloomy a picture should talk to students. And they should also take into account one of the strongest traits of Austrian bureaucratic, political and personal life: the inclination to hold somebody else responsible. Here there are several candidates: the EU, the new laws, the new guidelines which may not be specific enough, the next teacher who might not be available, and anything else that could account for the confusion. Austria is well known for its love of excuses.

Paul Liessmann’s main argument stands: The new Bachelor-structure is being forced upon universities in Austria that – despite all the hectic reforms in recent years – still stand on a different foundation, the model of teaching informed by research, that Alexander Humboldt laid out centuries ago.

The political decision makers in Austria have known since 1999 that the new EU guidelines were to be in effect by 2010. It would have been more expedient and more student-friendly to blast the old structure to pieces and start from square one.

But this would have required strong leadership in politics and within the existing universities; it would also have required men and women with a vision in the education system. Both seem extremely hard to come by.

Other articles from this issue