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Why Austria Does Not Need an "Exzellenz Universität"

bridges vol. 9, April 2006 / Guest Commentaries on the Institute of Science and Technology - Austria
Maria-Regina Kecht

It is hard to imagine that the various commissions and sub-commissions working on the concept and the timeline of the proposed "Institute for Science and Technology -Austria" (ISTA) did not know about the EU plans (admittedly still vague) for the European Institute of Technology (EIT) touted recently in Vienna by Ján Figel (Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Training, Culture and Multilingualism).

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}It is hard to understand that the final report - published in June 2005 - outlining the organization, the research agenda, and the funding sources of ISTA was based on only three homegrown feasibility studies and did not include any references to already existing or planned research centers (of excellence) in the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, and the US.

And it is hard to believe that the Austrian politicians backing this project really think that Austria will succeed in reaching the goals of the EU Seventh Framework Program (FP7) and double its financial support for research and development by 2013. Of course, it is unlikely that any other EU member state will achieve these goals, either. If one tends to be optimistic, one could point to the most recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on "The Economics of Knowledge: Why Education is Key for Europe's Success," and hope that its rather devastating assessment of higher education in much of Europe will lead to major and swift reforms, reforms that would merit the name and really revolutionize an outdated system. Spending only 1.2 percent of the GDP on post-secondary education, as Austria is currently doing, is inadequate for the outdated system and completely insufficient for any reform plans.

In his responses to the EU plans of an EIT, Georg Winckler, President of the European University Association (EUA) and Provost of the University of Vienna, has pointed to the unflattering comparison between post-secondary education (and its results) in the US and Europe. He has stressed the urgency for EU countries to expand access to universities - establishing a more democratically diverse and larger base - while promoting excellence at the top levels of education (Ph.D. and postdoctoral training). Winckler has been calling for the implementation of the Lisbon accord - funding R&D at 3 percent of the GDP by 2010 - and thus for increased financial backing of all existing universities.

A small country like Austria need not have an MIT, a CalTech, or a Cavendish Lab - and, more accurately stated, it would be foolish to try to replicate such research centers. The Austrian national context (historically, politically, economically, demographically, etc.) is so radically different that the idea of a conceptual transfer seems naïve or the result of hubris. Instead, one could re-evaluate the R&D situation of the existing post-secondary institutions, do a critical assessment (and ranking) of universities and Fachhochschulen (universities of applied sciences) - with regard to their scholarly/scientific output, their curricula, their educational goals and outcomes, their graduation rate, their graduates' career placement, and their cooperation with private industry/business - and then pursue the long-held plan of supporting outstanding departments in their efforts to become internationally renowned.

Austria is expected to follow the guidelines of the Bologna process, and therefore it should be possible for each Austrian university to have rather broad course offerings for the mandatory Baccalaureate course of study (in the liberal arts and sciences as well as engineering and business). The programs for master's degrees and Ph.D.s, however, can be less numerous, more selective, and distributed among the different schools according to their level of excellence in a particular field. Departments that have distinguished themselves through their innovative research, their student mentoring, and their international competitiveness should be generously supported in their work - through substantially increased public funding, focused private sponsoring, and attractive packages for post-docs and senior scientists/scholars. These university-specific centers of excellence would help each school to establish a reputation for its superior achievement in certain areas (e.g., glaciology, bio-engineering, radiology, Tibetology) and thus be of major disciplinary significance to other scientists/scholars/experts and students internationally. Clearly, there are a good number of outstanding researchers at Austrian universities. Rather than having to conduct their work in hopelessly underfunded labs or ill-equipped libraries and trying to supervise huge amounts of Seminararbeiten (term papers) and theses because of disastrous cuts in teaching staff, these researchers and their qualifications should be recognized and rewarded properly so that they can concentrate on what they do best, namely pursue "Forschung auf dem höchsten Niveau" (research on the highest level) which was the phrase used in the final committee report on ISTA's purpose.

The so-called university reforms in Austria of the past decade or so have certainly not promoted excellence; and the ostensible autonomy that the Zukunftsministerium (BMBWK, the Federal Ministry for Education, Science and Culture) generously granted the universities meant only that they were now free to find sponsors who would contribute substantial funds to cover the deficits caused by severely reduced public support. The result of this sort of autonomy - that also brought universities a new level of nepotism in selecting members of Universitätsbeiräte (university advisory committees) - is a deep-seated malaise among the faculty, the administrators, and the students. Surely this is not a psychological framework that would encourage an interest in more reform! It's also perfectly understandable that the majority of Austrian scientists/scholars and students are opposed to the ISTA project.

There is no need for ISTA in Maria Gugging (the location near Klosterneuburg selected for the establishment of ISTA) or anywhere else on Austrian soil. There is great need, however, for a substantive dialogue between politicians, "market representatives," and academics (from universities, Fachhochschulen, and think tanks) on how best to promote "Forschung auf dem höchsten Niveau" at the existing post-secondary institutions. Such a dialogue would most likely promote the idea of strictly following the EU guidelines for increased public spending on education, the identification of university-specific centers of excellence offering Ph.D.s and post-doctoral fellowships, the recruitment of international scientists/scholars, and the grooming of real talent among the young from all over the world. Following that, Austria should certainly be able to contribute to a real or virtual EIT - if it should ever come into being.


The author, Maria-Regina Kecht, has been an associate professor of German at Rice University in Houston, Texas, since 1997. In addition to her teaching activities, she has been editor of the journal Modern Austrian Literature since 2005.{/access}

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