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Introducing Karlheinz Toechterle, Austrian Federal Minister of Science and Research

bridges, vol. 33, May 2012 / People in the Spotlight
By Ursula Brustmann

One year ago, when a government cabinet reshuffle took place in Austria following the unexpected resignation (for health reasons) of the vice chancellor, Tyrolean-born Karlheinz Toechterle joined the Austrian government cabinet as the new Federal Minister of Science and Research. Toechterle was called to that position as an expert, hailing from the University of Innsbruck in his home state, where he had served as president of the university since 2007.

Karlheinz ToechterleA professor of classical philology by training, Toechterle is well known for his preference for philosophical discourse. He prefers giving lectures to giving interviews. In this, he follows the old adage: “Think before you speak,” which certainly puts him well above the level of many other politicians. As Christoph Schwarz of the Austrian paper Die Presse puts it: “You can literally watch him thinking and – most remarkably – you will not get bored.”

Toechterle’s official CV lists the following research interests: Roman tragedy, especially Senecan tragedies; theory of literature; reception of classical antiquity; neo-Latin studies; theory and methodology of teaching ancient languages.

Knowing Toechterle’s research background and interests, one wonders how they might play into his role as minister at the helm of the Ministry of Science and Research. Asked about his political style and personal approach to challenges, Toechterle says: “It’s a mix of two contradictory attitudes: On the one hand, I energetically pursue my aims, since I am well aware of what is required for the further positive development of our universities and the higher education system in Austria; on the other hand, however, remaining calm is essential – I know that in a democracy a compromise between conflicting ideas and interests has to be found.”


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His perspective as a classicist as well as a neo-politician is interesting to hear when he reflects on the phrase “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" as famously written in the United States Declaration of Independence. For Toechterle, it is “remarkable to see such a phrase in an official political document.” However, Toechterle elaborates, it makes sense insofar as the Founding Fathers are known to have been influenced by ancient philosophical thinking when drafting the US Constitution. Toechterle points out two prominent pieces of ancient literature: “the Politeia by Platon, which outlines the idea of justice, and De Re Publica by Cicero, clearly voicing the author’s preference for a mixed constitution. In general, the reasoning about happiness was one of the main topics, especially during the Hellenistic period.”

Moving fast forward to the United States of 2012, we wondered whom Toechterle would be interested in meeting when paying a visit to the United States today. Of course, there is John Holdren, himself a scientist and, as scientific advisor to President Obama, the closest US counterpart to Toechterle’s position in Austria. But apart from the official schedule, whom else would the Minister not want to miss? “It would be a particular pleasure for me to meet colleagues from my field – for instance, Anthony J. Boyle, who published a new commentary on Oedipus by Seneca in 2011 – and to discuss and compare his findings with my own commentary on this drama,“ Toechterle says. And “when it comes to selecting sights, I would certainly like to visit the Smithsonian Museums in Washington and, as a Tyrolean, I would definitely want to see the Grand Canyon.”

When asked about the current major challenges in the Austrian higher education landscape, Toechterle stresses two topics: ensuring adequate funding for universities and implementing structural reform processes to enhance and expand the Austrian Higher Education Area.

With regard to ensuring adequate funding, Toechterle explains: “Currently, there are no tuition fees for Austrians and EU citizens who want to attend university. Public funding has recently been boosted by the so-called Hochschulmilliarde, i.e., almost €1 billion set aside to provide additional funding for the public universities for the next three years (2013–2015).” But, as the minister points out, “private sources of revenue for universities have so far been largely neglected and ought to be boosted, especially by means of the introduction of tuition fees.”

Austrian Higher Education Area

21 Universities
> Overview (in German)

∑ 292,355 students
155,329 female
137,026 male

[01/13/2012]

No tuition fees.

> Federal aid for students in Austria

> Scholarships and Research Grants

~ €6.5 billion euro (2010– 2012)
Global budget > performance agreements for a period of three years
 

Universities for Applied Sciences
21 Course-providing bodies  
372 FH degree programs
> Overview

∑ 40,434 students
19,025 female
21,409 male

[01/13/2012]

Some bodies charge tuition fees.
About 37% of the students pay no tuition fee.
~ €230 million (2011)
Based on the individual applicable Universities for Applied Sciences development and financing plan – government funding for an agreed-upon number of student places.

> Flat fees

13 Private Universities
> Overview (in German)

∑ 6,301 students
3,760 female
2,541 male

[01/13/2012]

Tuition fees.
Low by international comparison; ranging from €10,000 to €30,000 per year.
[N/A]

 

Not only is there the striking difference between the US and Austrian Higher Education systems that students have to pay tuition to attend US universities, but also the culture of philanthropy is widespread, whereas in Austria philanthropy is still a kind of Terra Incognita to most university administrators.

Fund raising and donations play quite a significant role in the US higher education system, for funding faculty salaries and for the construction of buildings or campus facilities. To illustrate the extent: The 50 Most Generous Donors of 2011 contributed $10.4 billion last year, including $26 million for Duke University (Durham, NC) and $227.3 million for the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA). But despite these impressive amounts, donations accounted for only 6.5 percent of college expenditures in 2011. The Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) 2011, published by the nongovernmental, non-profit Council for Aid to Education (CAE), presents a full analysis of the trends.

Affordability and access to higher education are perennial concerns in the US, especially as tuition and fees for colleges and universities have grown rapidly for the past ten years, faster than the median income and inflation. Nearly every student relies on financial aid (particularly loans and grants) to finance his or her education. Levels of debt [more information > National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)] vary widely by state, but as US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remarked in November 2011 at the annual Federal Student Aid conference in Las Vegas, Nevada: “College seniors with student loans now graduate with an average of more than $25,000 in debt.”

BM Toechterle & StudentsRegarding the introduction of tuition fees in Austria, Minister Toechterle makes it clear that: “At the same time, social differences need to be taken into account and balanced by means of a well-developed system of appropriate study grants.” Andreas Schibany and Gerhard Streicher (Joanneum Research) have recently published a distinct policy recommendation, Income Contingent Loan (ICL), as the most appropriate model for Austria. It provides social fairness/justice, and repayment depends on future success and does not lead to financial problems or debt issues. Such loans provide an incentive for the individual student and for universities to stay competitive. Income-contingent loans were successfully implemented in Australia (1988) and New Zealand (1992).

A Mapping Process for the Austrian Higher Education System

In addition to funding, structural processes and strategies are needed for any Higher Education Area. The Hochschulplan, or Mapping Process for the Austrian Higher Education System, currently tops the agenda of Minister Toechterle: “It is an ambitious project to help us develop and expand the Austrian Higher Education Area in order to make it even more successful and competitive in an international context. Like many other countries, Austria looks back on a long tradition and the historic development of universities. Particularly in the past 20 years, the higher education landscape in Austria has expanded both in numbers and diversity: We have, for instance, seen the rise of universities of applied sciences as well as the establishment of private universities. Moreover, since the conditions and the regulatory framework for Austria’s universities were modernized as a result of the University Act of 2002 and the autonomy it granted, the need for a joint effort in planning has arisen. The Hochschulplan is an appropriate tool to meet the challenges involved.”

The Mapping Process for the Austrian Higher Education System has lofty aims for increasing international competitiveness and assuring the highest possible level of teaching and research. Closer cooperation between universities, better use of resources, mutually agreed-upon priorities, as well as a focus on distinct institutional profiles are supposed to strengthen the position of the Austrian Higher Education System vis-à-vis international competition. Within its purview as a comprehensive planning instrument, the Mapping Process for the Austrian Higher Education System is designed to coordinate all activities within it without infringing on the autonomy of individual institutions.

When asked about Austria’s most conspicuous achievements in science and research today, Minister Toechterle especially points out “the noteworthy increase in the field of the biological and life sciences, the outstanding position of physics, as well as successful developments in other disciplines such as demography and archaeology.” In this context the Austrian archaeologist Sabine Ladstaetter, director of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, was just recently named Scientist of the Year 2011 and will be visiting the US on both the East and the West coasts to give lectures on her research. “Furthermore,” Toechterle continues, “our technical universities excel in automotive technologies, to give but one example, and the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, among other institutions, is meeting some of the formidable challenges of humankind, such as questions concerning renewable energy, efficiency in building passive houses, and sustainability. Of course, I would also like to mention neo-Latin studies as an example of a prominent field of research in the Humanities.”

Toechterle is not only aware of the excellent research performed within Austria’s national boundaries but also points out the large number of “scientific expats” from Austria who pursue at least parts of their research careers in North America. Referring to this group, Toechterle says: “I would want Austrians to be aware of their ties to their home country. This awareness could serve as an incentive to form networks and to foster cooperation with Austrians back home and expatriates alike. Networks of researchers abroad, such as the OST Scientist Network or independent researchers’ organizations like ASciNA (Austrian Scientists and Scholars in North America), can play an important role in providing and disseminating relevant information – and funding possibilities to enhance transatlantic cooperation range from the Austro-American Fulbright Program to European ERC grants.”

The ASciNA Awards, especially, are a good example of not only kind words but also money. Since 2008, the awards have been given to acknowledge outstanding research by Austrian scientists working in North America in two categories – for young and more advanced scientists – each worth €10,000. The ASciNA Awards have been initiated by the Austrian scientists' network ASciNA and are funded by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research.
And who knows, perhaps next year’s awards will be handed to the outstanding Austrian researchers in the US by Minister Toechterle in person. The Grand Canyon is waiting!

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