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Interview with Erwin Niederwieser on the Impact of the University Reform in Austria



Erwin Niederwieser is a member of the Austrian Parliament. From 1994 to 1996, and again since 2003, he has served as spokesperson for education
for the Social-democratic party (SPÖ) .




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What aspects of the previous university system most warranted a reform and did the reform successfully tackle these specific issues?
Major problems were: short-term financial planning (annual budgets), all too often lengthy decision-making processes, a merely marginal number of autonomous decisions made by universities themselves, and hardly any incentives for cooperation within universities and with the outside world. Therefore, the introduction of three year budgets as well as a higher degree of autonomy in decision-making (without obligatory prior authorization by the Ministry of Science) were certainly important steps forward. However, in the first years after the reform was implemented, university budgets turned out to be guaranteed but insufficient - a serious drawback indeed.


What are the major goals of the new structure? Are some short-term goals already attained? Can you give specific examples of how the reforms have positively (or negatively) impacted Austrian universities?
Since 1975 Austrian Universities have had democratic structures with all relevant groups participating (university professors, associate lecturers, students, others). Under the new structure, these have been largely abolished. In their place, a university's board of trustees (Universitätsrat) has been installed. More than half of its members are appointed by the government. Experience with this body varies: It encompasses a wide range of profiles from Germanic nationalist university councillors nominated upon request of the Freedom Party (FPÖ), to highly competent members from the private sector providing valuable contributions.

 

The university president (all 21 universities are headed by male presidents!) and his team, in fact, decide everything. Although the university president can delegate decisions, it is he who is ultimately accountable. Decisions relate to budget allocation as well as approval of research projects and appointment of heads of institutes. That is why many competent persons have withdrawn from contributing to the shaping of universities. On the other hand, outdated structures have been eliminated by the reform.

 

How strong or weak should the influence of the government on Higher Education be? Which areas of Austrian universities should be regulated by the government in the future?
It is indisputable that substantial amounts of taxpayers' money are used to train future academics and to do research. In a democracy, there is somebody who takes responsibility for that. Citizens elect members of parliament, not university presidents, and the government is accountable to the parliament. The government is responsible for the functioning of universities. This means that the legal framework must ensure:
- an effective and efficient governing body
- high quality standards of study programs
- that research takes a responsible approach towards developing our society.
The regulations concerning quality assurance have to be defined by the government, which also needs to guarantee availability of high-level study programs at each university. University bodies and procedures are subject to continuous change.


Where do you see the benefits and where are the risks of the new university structure?
The new structure enables faster decisions, but on the other hand it increases the risk of losing competent staff.


Regarding equal opportunities in terms of gender, Austrian universities are sometimes criticized for under-representation of women in tenured positions. Members of the equal opportunities committee have expressed concerns that the new university structure has further weakened their position. What is the long-term vision for achieving equal opportunities in the new system?
Experience so far has been rather negative, both regarding the composition of university boards of trustees and the appointment of new presidents or professors. In addition, the existing staff regulation clearly discriminates against women taking up scientific careers, because the regulation stipulates that scientists need to establish a good reputation in the scientific community within a short timeframe. Unlike their male colleagues, women scientists are, in fact, forced to choose between a family and a career. Support structures such as child care facilities are underdeveloped, and support programs for women lack effectiveness. My conclusion: I don't see any improvement for women in the new structure.


Have students and the junior faculty ("Mittelbau") embraced the reform? If not, what are the major points of criticism?
Students and the so-called Mittelbau used to be represented in all decision-making bodies, including important committees such as the study commission (Studienkommission) and the institute's assembly (Institutskonferenz), where they occupied a third of the statutory seats. However, these structures no longer exist. Nevertheless, I think that we are moving towards an era of participation. The Austrian universities could have been role models in this respect, but obviously some conservative advisors of the Minister of Education tried to re-establish the old Ordinarienuniversität (in which decisions were mainly made by full professors) that was abolished thirty years ago. However, they were also let down, because now the managers are in charge, and they are barely accountable to anyone. The experiment is interesting, but also very risky.


In your opinion, what is the role and the potential of Austrian universities when it comes to basic and applied research? What impact, if any, has the reform had on that role?
Quite diverse, but generally speaking, our students are very well qualified. They take part in various research projects and are recognised for their creativity and thoroughness at work. Many excellent young researchers are being poached or leave the universities, because pay is low and jobs are short-term, often despite excellent achievements. In the long run, I think, this is damaging.


Do you feel that the envisioned "University of Excellence" will benefit the existing universities? Is there even a need of such a university, if it is only to be an Institute of Advanced Studies?

In my opinion, there is currently no real need.

 

If you could draw a picture of the Austrian university system in 2030, what would it look like? What are the greatest challenges for Austrian universities in the next 25 years and what are the lines along which Austrian universities will develop?
If the worst deficiencies of the University Law 2002 are eliminated, I can absolutely see positive prospects, e.g. for Universities of Arts and the development of creative economy, in medical science, or research into sustainability. This will require Austrian universities to attract talented students from all over the world, which can only be achieved through effective scholarship programs.


With the European development of universities in mind, what are the specific strengths of the Austrian universities - what makes them stand out in an international competition? How would you entice international students to study in Austria?
High quality standards at all universities - Austria does not have a small number of top-class universities surrounded by mediocrity, but rather all Austrian universities are very good. This can by no means be taken for granted; it has to be cultivated. Our universities could act as bridges - the Alpen-Adria-University at Klagenfurt has already started to implement this idea. And we will certainly have a government one day that is committed to promoting research.


How can the open-door policy in university admissions be maintained while at the same time sustaining high quality standards and remaining internationally competitive?
No comment at present.


What implications - if any - does European enlargement have for Austrian universities?
In concrete terms, the wider scope of languages and cultures has extended and enriched the available study programs offered. In addition, there are a considerable number of cooperative activities linked to exchange programs for students and scientists, and also to research projects. We are on the right track!{/access}

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