The Ideal Of a Free University

To Robert Menasse, Austrian education has been starved into irrelevance

Top Stories | Matthias Wurz | July / August 2012

Photo: Matthias Wurz

"Maybe we should simply close down all Austrian universities and provide all those who want to study with a €1,500 scholarship to study abroad." Austrian writer Robert Menasse is a master of polemic.

The author of books like Wings of Stone (1991) or Reverse Thrust (1995) has recently paid tribute to Austria’s oldest and largest university in a commentary published by the daily Die Presse entitled, "To The Alma Mater with Love: Shut It Down!" A few days later, we sat down in the Café Einfahrt in Vienna’s Karmeliterviertel, to discuss his thought-provoking comments in detail.

"Why not shut down the University of Vienna and turn it into a museum?" he said, dragging on a cigarette. "Maybe then people will realise the academic culture that was lost." One clearly senses Menasse’s disappointment in the ongoing debate about how to reform Austria’s higher education system: too many students, not enough personnel, too little space, and severe underfunding amounting to only 1.3% of GDP.

His conclusion is the same as that in the OECD report Education at a glance 2011: Education is evidently not a priority in Austrian politics.

Menasse’s essay followed the police clearing of a student occupation of the Dean’s office and the Audimax at the University of Vienna on 19 April, protesting against the scrapping of the Internationale Entwicklung (International Development) Bachelor’s degree, in favour of a fee-based Master’s programme.

"They wouldn’t even have to have an exhibition on offer, just display the historic educational ruins, like the ancient archeological digs of Pompeii or Ephesos." Menasse sighed, reaching for another cigarette. "One can immediately feel the immense richness of the culture that was once present in this building," he said, referring to the imposing main building on the Ring.

Founded in 1356, the University of Vienna was the second-oldest university in the former Holy Roman Empire. It presently educates around 91,000 students in 15 departments, with 188 different degree programmes on offer.


Of tuition fees and Nobel Prizes

Menasse is grateful to Austria’s free university system: "The Kreisky reforms of the 1970s are what enabled me to study. I owe a lot to that era," he mused. When tuition fees were eliminated in 1975, higher education was made possible for all. It was "an essential milestone, enabling many more young people to go to university: It’s education, not professional training." And that is where Austria’s problems began: growing student numbers, shrinking funding, and general upheaval.

The reintroduction of tuition fees in 2002, and their subsequent retraction in 2008, were not only controversial and heavily contested by students, but left a legal tangle and indecisive leadership. The most recent episode began when conservative Minister of Science Karlheinz Töchterle unilaterally approved the voluntary reintroduction of fees – a call heeded by the largest institutions, including the University of Vienna. Most plan the change for the autumn.

Menasse’s indignance may be hard to grasp to an outsider, growing out of both history and logic. "Why compare the University of Vienna with institutions like Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford or Harvard? A quarter of a century ago, this was a well-functioning university that produced Nobel Prize laureates. Politicians tend to forget that nowadays, as if the university had needed politics to intervene for any improvement."

He attacked the oversimplifications: "For two decades, Ministers have repeatedly ascribed the poor performance of Austrian universities to the lack of tuition fees." Menasse lit another cigarette. "…and future Nobel Prize winners are best produced by tuition fees?" He paused. "It’s absurd."

Fifteen years ago, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair was elected on the promise of stronger education. In Austria, there is no consensus, except that no more money should be spent.

"The ministers of sports and of families pride themselves with creating more athletes and better family planning. In education, they aim for fewer students, fewer academic personnel and less public funding." This is not an issue Austrian politicians think will win elections.


Education as a human right

So, why study?

"It’s not a question of the circumstances," Menasse went on, "Education is a human right. Not only because it’s nice to be well educated. Education provides us with the tools that enable us to live as human beings, with all the rights and opportunities that go with it."

Menasse thinks the inherent need to study is what makes education fruitful, providing the investment is there to deliver quality teaching.

On an international level, Austria has continously fallen below the average 1.5% of GDP in public spending for universities of OECD countries. In November 2007, the Austrian Parliament unanimously demanded an increase in public spending for higher education to 2% of GDP by 2020. However, precious little has happened since.

As we hailed the waitress, Menasse summed up his concern: "If we would like to keep our democratic system alive, we need educated people." He put out his last cigarette.

"It is a contradictio in adjecto – a contradiction in itself – to believe that a democracy of idiots can thrive."

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