Worth The Price

Enough Whining! Student Fees at the Uni Wien Sort Out the Unserious.

Opinion | Joerg Michner | April 2007

Social democrat Alfred Gusenbauer had campaigned on the promise of abolishing university tuition fees. But after the SPÖ won the parliamentary election last fall by a narrow margin, the tuitions fees were abandoned in the tense negotiations for the new coalition with the center-right People’s Party (ÖVP).

Many students were upset. The Austrian students association ÖH (Österreichische Hochschülerschaft) staged demonstrations calling for the abolition of the fees – and calling chancellor Gusenbauer a liar.

While they are right about Gusenbauer backing down – something they may want to remember at the next election – the ÖH fails completely to understand the greater picture. In an organization where many intend to pursue a career in politics, it is surprising they do not grasp how politics works in the real world.

When the tuition fees were first imposed in 2001 by the conservative coalition of  ÖVP and the Freedom Party (FPÖ), protests from the ÖH proved fruitless. The tuition fees were only one of several reforms implemented to balance Austria’s budget. Indeed, it was only little: less than 400 Euros per semester. For the ÖH, it was a matter of principle: They believed then, and still believe, that a university education should be free to all who qualify.

But that was exactly the problem. For one thing, many at the University of Vienna were only nominal students, registered – for free – only to have access to student benefits like reduced train fare.

For another, the university needed money. Naturally, nobody likes to suddenly pay for a service that has been previously provided for free, but the ÖH didn’t make a very strong case. They demanded the new fees be retracted right away, and they should have been  aware that this was not a winning strategy, that they themselves are not strong enough as a pressure group to fight the government.

And what’s more, not only did many students understand the fees’ necessity, but many felt the government did the right thing by finally giving "those lazy students who just bum around, living off their parents’ and the states’ money," as one parent of a current student put it. What they could use, he said, was a "good kick up the butt."

Additionally, with all the benefits – the tax benefits, support payments, reductions on transit, special bank accounts, tickets for cheaper events, museums, concerts and the like – students have anyway, the working populace felt that 400 Euros for half a year was a rather small amount, especially compared to most other countries, and even Austrian private high schools. So in a sense, after the ÖH had vividly protested against the "unfair" new tuition fee, they played right into the hands of those who accused students of being out of touch with reality.

What the ÖH should have done is what any sensible professional would have done in the situation: They should have accepted the new tuition fee, and used it to their advantage. Had the ÖH showed some understanding for the government’s position, they would have been in a much better position of fighting for students’ needs.

Simply put, the ÖH could have said: "Dear government, we agree to the tuition fee and see the need for it, however in return we demand that the following nuisances be taken care of."  As customers who pay for a service, they could have demanded their money’s worth. Not only would this have given the ÖH the chance to exert pressure on any government, but it could have also won much needed support from the population.

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