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Autrian Univeritie in Crii Tradition Lot, Poibilitie Gained

Rudolf Richter, University of Vienna

Yes, universities in Austria are in a crisis. The crisis is first a financial one and mainly due to investment in the banking system rather than higher education. Second, they are in a crisis because their democratic and empowering tradition has been broken. Third, they are in a crisis because the new stringent study systems are alien to the Humboldtian idea of integrating teaching and research. However, from my experience as Dean of one of the largest social science faculties in Europe with about 15.000 students (consisting mainly of political science, communication science, social and cultural anthropology and sociology – thankfully with only 2500 students), in the largest Austrian University, the University of Vienna (with more than 80.000 students), I know, there are opportunities we can exploit.

Universities in Austria have gone through a tremendous change in the last decades. First they became autonomous. Though the money still comes from the state, it is negotiated. The universities receive a three year budget based on a development plan and performance indicators. The rector of the university has the whole power of distribution over the budget and personnel. On a second level the Dean heads a faculty with power delegated by the rector and responsible for the budget and personnel as well as the development of the faculty. The organisational structure within the faculty is a matter for each university. The faculty can consist of subunits: departments, institutes, research groups or whatever. The traditional institutes are one possible subunit. The head of the subunit is appointed by the dean, usually a professor of the unit.
–There is a board half of whom are professors from other universities, usually from another country, while the others are appointed by government. It guides the university and contracts the Rector as the head of the university.
–There is a senate. This body is elected within the university and is concerned with setting up commissions for hiring professors (half of the members of the commission are professors, the other half are made up equally from assistant professors and students) and structuring programs of study.

This gives a very clear hierarchical structure, which was unknown for Austrian universities as they were state universities governed mainly by commissions and committees within the university. Commissions used to be constituted as follows: one third professors, one third assistants and one third students. The personnel were hired, that means contracted, by the minister while the Dean and Rector had mainly representative and moderating functions.

The second change was the introduction of the so-called Bologna-system structuring university curricula in Bachelor, Master and PhD studies. Familiar to the Anglo-Saxon world, the system has no foundation in the Austrian and middle European educational system. There were only Masters and PhD or doctorate programs as they were called. The change, especially in Austria, is so far seen to be unsatisfactory as the Austrian Matura (the German Abitur), reached after 12 years in school, is not comparable to an American high school graduation. In fact the Matura is equivalent to a Bachelor’s degree in the US. (I know that, I have taught at American universities). Now studies at the university are shorter or longer – depending on the perspective. You can reach an academic degree as Bachelor after three years, which is shorter than before, or you can add a two year masters degree and then a three year PhD. That means it takes longer to reach the MA level than before. That caused far-reaching student protest in 2009.

The restructuring had obvious consequences: the Austrian universities changed from an academic discussion body, relatively unstructured and with a high devotion to democratic participation to a management and business like structure with clear responsibilities, centralized hierarchy and strictly structured study programs especially at the bachelor level.

There is still one other particularity of the Austrian university system: we have free access to university and no student fees. The result is an unequal distribution of students, with some subjects – mainly social sciences, but also biology or medicine – being hopelessly overburdened with masses of students. As a consequence some of them – medicine or psychology – are allowed to have an entrance exam to limit the student numbers but they are still at a high level.

In times of economic crisis the government put a lot of money in the economy and the banking system. The result is that the universities will suffer from significant budget cuts in the future. The universities in the 21st century will be very different from those in the second half of the 20th century.

For good or bad? This would be too easy an alternative to quarrel over. Today the university is in a crisis. Definitely. But the new organisation has also tremendous advantages if properly used. Decision making is quicker and more transparent. Yes: transparent, because you know who is responsible. The quality of the decisions and their acceptance depends, of course, very much on how those who have the power communicate within the university, how much they engage and include others in the decision-making. In my opinion we can say that responsibility is restored to an organization, which formerly can be described as one of organized irresponsibility. Commissions with three-way parity (one third professors, one third middle level, one third students) decided everything, and no single person was responsible for anything.

On the other hand, democratic participation, that is participation with clear influence decreased. The universities are not a democratic organization any more, academic bodies and academic discourse is minimized. This means also a loss of power, most obviously, for students and, in Austria, even more important for middle level academics: post-docs and associate professors. A lot of knowledge embedded in the production of science gets lost for the leaders and decision makers. Thus, the new challenge is the organization of the distribution of knowledge, setting up communication and participation processes within the universities.

The structuring of BA, MA and PhD brought another problem to the universities. Most of them, unfamiliar with and hostile to this Anglo-Saxon system, conceived of the BA as a preparation for the MA, or even more troubling: trying to include the requirements of the former MA within the BA. This usually leads to an overloaded, tightly structured BA with the loss of the meaning of university education: the ideas of reflexivity and critical thinking broaden the perspective of students, enabling and empowering them to develop a self conscious, self-reliant way of producing and using scientific knowledge. The bad result is that students devote themselves to learning for exams and, for the teacher, the most important thing is imparting knowledge that will help students prepare for final tests.

The three-level Bologna system will not be abolished, and probably it should not be abolished as all universities across the globe are in some way or another adopting that system. But universities could make better use of new possibilities. The inflexible structure within the grades is a homemade issue. Nobody forces universities to organize the system with stringent requirements. Secondly, universities have to realize that Bachelor degree is very different from an MA. Thus it should be organized as a specific form of study, of course, accomplishing the MA syllabus but at the same creating an educational system of its own. Students already treat it in this way. In the social sciences not as many as was anticipated by students themselves as well as by administrators are entering MA studies. The creation of colleges where Bachelor studies are organized separately from the university, might be one organizational possibility to allow universities to concentrate on their core business: educating at the MA and PhD level.

The restructuring of the social sciences at my university, also had one big advantage: due to the fact that universities are asking for more money from third parties, we can hire a lot of project assistants on the pre-doc and also post-doc level. The old Austrian university was closed to the next generations as most of the scientists remained in the organisation with tenure, blocking upward mobility and preventing young scholars from entering the university system

Rather than seeking a return the old system, and longing for the old times, we should take this opportunity to create, within the new structure, what I consider to be the essentials of a university education: reflective and critical use and production of knowledge. Yes – it can be done.


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