University Act 2002—A Disputed Reform

by Kurt Grünewald

Gruenewald_KurtThe federal law for the organization of the universities (University Act of 2002) transformed universities from entities under State regulation to fully legal entities under public law. Simultaneously, their administrative structures were streamlined, and the position ofthe university president ( Rektor) was afforded additional power. Introduced as a complement to the university president and the senate (Senat) was the university's board of trustees (Universitätsrat), comparable to the board of trustees of a US university. Consequently, most provisions of the University Organization Act (UOG) of 1993 and the Art University Act (KUOG) were rendered ineffective. In the spirit of deregulation, consolidation, and streamlining, the new act regulates not only organizational law, but personnel and academic realms as well.

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Critique of the University Act

Evaluation of the current university situation adamantly ignores the fact that, in all major decision-making bodies such as the senate and thefaculty ( Fakultät), the professors have twice as many votes (50%) as groups comprising students (25%) and the junior faculty (25%; so-called academic Mittelbau). Only those who subscribe to conspiracy theories would maintain that everything suddenly improves when professors are guaranteed an absolute majority in all decision-making bodies.


It has already been observed that factors such as tuition fees, temporary contracts, and non-competitive salaries lower Ph.D. enrollments and offer emerging academics fewer opportunities. The minister of education, however, declares that "there are no problems, only challenges," disregarding the fact that in the US, whose system is highly praised, those who have been promoted to professor (habilitierte) are automatically "members of the faculty" and belong to the group of professors.


The new law has already given rise to problems in the areas of leadership and motivation. The university's willingness to perform develops from the institutionally-secured possibility of utilizing its faculty's expertise in central decisions. At a university, the staff is not a means to an end, not a replaceable factor in production, not an object for the accomplishment of higher-ranking objectives. Achievements result when an engaged desire to be involved encounters the opportunity for involvement.


Under the present system, the majority of university students and staff - regardless of their qualifications - are excluded from the leadership of university bodies as these positions, and the ability to make recommendations to the university president's office, are restricted to professors and those whom they favor. The exclusion of the junior faculty, in particular, discriminates against a qualified group of academics and can in no way be justified. These key achievers are only marginally represented in university bodies, thus contradicting actual performance structures. Although a business model is at the base of the federal government's law, no business would ever allow such an inefficient allocation of valuable resources.


The critique also focuses on the overly powerful role of the university's board of trustees, as this puts into question the stated promise of autonomy. Along with the fact that the university is not even allowed to vote for its own president, the university's board of trustees decides most basic matters, and can block important decisions that have been left to the university. It has the power to recall the president and vice president, and to accept or reject plans for development and organization. Previously, universities and their bodies were constitutionally legitimized to pursue the tasks assigned to them, without being bound by contracts. The construction of the university's board of trustees, to which no member of the respective university may belong, with its broad areas of authority and decision-making power, contradicts the most crucial aspects of the promised autonomy.

Universities and reforms

Universities have typically evolved and been subject to steady reform. In most cases, departments and working groups have only been able to maintain their standards, reputations, and international contacts through idealism, extraordinary engagement, and uncompensated efforts.
Nonetheless, universities have come under pressure and must justify their existence to the public more than ever before. Future-oriented strategies are often deferred due to defensiveness or resignation. The common ground of teachers and students is becoming lost in administrative structures. In the 1970s, when students and junior faculty, the largest groups at the universities, demanded more democracy and transparency in order to break through the university's oligarchic structures, a spirit of revolution was ignited by the first major reform, the UOG 75. However, it is presently considered progressive to maintain a stance critical of the existing system, and to defame as outdated whatever cannot be restructured in innovative ways. Paradoxically, it is now the "reigning class" that promotes reform, calling for revolution in education and research which will enhance their power and influence, while others remain silent.


The dissociation from the State postulated by the new law is mere illusion. Service agreements are based on consensual agreements between the State and the universities. A university's board of trustees, designated by the government and comprising non-university persons, approves key decisions thus causing research-support organizations to fear political influence. The new law leads to a considerable centralization of decision-making structures within universities. Collegial organizations are removed and nationally-based organizations which dealt with university politics are dissolved. Thus, the main demands of the Green Party are:
  • the reinstitution of democratic instruments for formation of opinions and co-management,
  • the repeal of hierarchical-authoritative structures that decrease the motivation of young researchers through dependency relationships,
  • the establishment of an innovative tenure system with internationally competitive salaries and career perspectives, and
  • an OECD-level academic budget.
Some of what was previously valid has been questioned; however, the answers are not yet conclusive. Many consider the associated risks offered by this current reform to be greater than the chances afforded. The future course of the universities depends upon the formative power of all the actors, their imagination, their involvement, and their courage. Many values of science, and its commitment to truth despite all prophecies of doom, have proven more durable than certain governments, fashions, and trends. We are counting on it.

Kurt Grünewald is a member of the Austrian Parliament and has been the science and health spokesperson for the Green Party in the Austrian Parliament since 1999.{/access}