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Shouldn´t Autonomy Be Positive?

by Max Kothbauer

When shifting from business and administration to the university realm, one realizes that, in the latter, perceptions of phenomena may differ considerably from those in other areas. That is why my perspectives on university reform may be unlike those from other points of view.

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The university reform provides a great deal of autonomy, and that is a great opportunity. The government passes on its power of decision to the university's self-determining institutions. This aspect of Austrian university reform is particularly exemplary, and gives rise to an essential change in the model of higher education in continental Europe. The university presidency now represents a strong leadership. With their supervisory and decision-making functions, the university boards of trustees provide a counterbalance, while the senates can now concentrate on academic issues. It is in this respect that I consider this distribution of power not only a wise measure, but also one that enables more efficient leadership.


Anywhere else in society, autonomy would be gladly accepted, even enthusiastically welcomed. However, a widespread distrust is experienced in the university domain. There are several reasons for this. One of them is the unfamiliarity with this kind of leadership. Austrian faculty are used to working with their own rules and principles, with almost no restrictions but financial ones. An institutional accountability that went beyond a simple evaluation was uncommon, and this evaluation often had no consequences.


Individual researchers competed with other scientists in the same area for public funds and in the battlefield of academic discourse. Although public science funding authorities called for excellence, there was no institutional authority with the primary aim of fostering academic quality.
This tradition did not have far-reaching consequences, as long as the public means could assure more or less sufficient financial support. However, the new task of self-defining priorities by the academic community will demand a considerable learning process. Still skeptical, scientists believe that, at present, decisions on resource allocation are only in the hands of a few, be it the presidents or the deans. In American universities, resource allocation seems to be much more a prerogative of university presidencies. This is also related to the fact that presidents, provosts, and deans are often called from other universities, which predisposes the faculty toward the acceptance of their leadership.


Competing for the very best has also reached the European arena, not only with respect to faculty but also with regard to students. Consequently the pressure to achieve excellence and the need to sell academic success are growing strongly. However, the special Austrian context needs some consideration. The University of Vienna is one of the largest universities in the world. Over 60,000 students are enrolled in more than 130 different study programs. The maintenance of this spectrum is one of the fundamental principles of the University of Vienna. It is in this regard that the excellence of its scientists deserves honorable mention. A major challenge to the University of Vienna derives from the fact that Austrian universities are not in a position to choose their own students. Regardless of the political reasons underlying this principle, it is the source of serious problems. But it is not primarily university reform that will have an impact on the Austrian free admission policy. Rather, it is the European curriculum design project, referred to under the term "Bologna-Process," which might lead to the selection among students, at least at the higher stages in tertiary education.


The new law will be accepted. Accountability will be a core concept for university reform. We will have to improve ourselves in two directions: high esteem for the teaching faculty, and a stronger focus on the needs of students. Austrian universities divide their faculty into two groups, namely a group of full professors and a group of so-called Mittelbau, to which both associate and assistant professors belong. Needless to say, full professors will continue at the top of the academic hierarchy. However, since both teaching and research are, to a large degree, carried out by assistant and associate professors, this group also deserves full academic respect. Due to the previously-mentioned free access to university studies as a whole, lectures are hopelessly packed with students. It is only thanks to the high personal performance of both the staff and the students that a high educational level is usually achieved, albeit at the cost of a high attrition rate.

In this respect we have a lesson to learn from American universities' stronger focus on students and teaching. Every single student needs attention and advice. Correspondingly, the faculty requires conditions and the funds to provide for an environment conducive to excellence in teaching. Due to a series of historical and cultural reasons, public funding still plays a fundamental role in the Austrian and the continental European university context.


Autonomy is always good. The freedom to shape one's own future is one of the most valuable assets in a society. Tertiary education should be capable of forging a way for itself to benefit from the opportunities afforded by its recently-acquired autonomy.

Max Kothbauer is currently serving as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Vienna, Austria.{/access}

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