Education in Austria

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Stiftsgymnasium Melk, oldest Austrian school

The Republic of Austria has a free and public school system, and nine years of education are mandatory. Schools offer a series of vocational-technical and university preparatory tracks involving one to four additional years of education beyond the minimum mandatory level. The legal basis for primary and secondary education in Austria is the School Act of 1962. The federal Ministry of Education is responsible for funding and supervising primary, secondary, and, since 2000, also tertiary education. Primary and secondary education is administered on the state level by the authorities of the respective states.

Federal legislation played a prominent role in the education system, and laws dealing with education effectively have a de facto constitutional status because, like Austrian constitutional law, they can only be passed or amended by a two-thirds majority in parliament.

General Education[edit]

Pupils in Austria are required to complete four years of elementary school (Volksschule). After this, gifted students have the option to visit higher learning institutions that prepare one for university, whereas the majority go on to vocational preparatory schools. Some vocational/general schooling institutions end after a total of 8 years of schooling, whereas the higher institution "Gymnasium" finishes after a total of 12 years. These students receive the "Matura", the university admissions certificate, after the final exams. Some pupils decide to attend trade schools after their general trading, which can also end with the "Matura", although these only offer admission into specific areas of study at tertiary level.

Private schools[edit]

Private schools that provide primary and secondary education and some teacher training are run mainly, but by no means exclusively, by the Roman Catholic Church and account for approximately 10% of the 6,800 schools and 120,000 teachers. Roman Catholic schools have a reputation for more discipline and rigor than public institutions, and some are considered elite institutions. Because there is no tradition of private university education in Austria, the state has a virtual monopoly on higher education. This has been changing slowly in recent years as private universities become more commonplace.

History[edit]

Mandatory primary education was introduced by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (1740–1780), mandating in 1775 that all children of both sexes from the ages of six to twelve had to attend school.

The history of the Austrian education system since World War II may be characterized as an attempt to transform higher education from a traditional entitlement of the upper social classes to an equal opportunity for all social classes. Before the School Act of 1962, Austria had a “two-track” education system. After four years of compulsory primary education from the ages of six to ten in the elementary school, or Volksschule (pl., Volksschulen), children and their parents had to choose between the compulsory secondary level for eleven- to fourteen-year-olds called the middle school, or Hauptschule (pl., Hauptschulen), or the first four years of an eight-year university preparatory track at higher schools of general education (Allgemeinbildende Höhere Schulen, or AHS). An AHS, also known as a gymnasium, is an institution providing different fields of specialization that grant the diploma (Reifeprüfung or Matura) needed to enter university. (Other than Berufsbildende Höhere Schulen, which also allow access to university, they do not provide graduates with any specific skill immediately useful on the labor market, but concentrate on general education in the humanities, science and languages).

Before the 1962 reform, the great majority of children, more than 90%, attended the compulsory Hauptschule, where they were divided according to their performance in elementary school into two groups: an “A group,” which was directed toward two- to four-year vocational-technical training schools after graduation from the Hauptschule; and a “B group,” which was required to complete one additional year of compulsory education before entrance into apprenticeship programs or the work force. The remaining elementary-school graduates—less than 10%—enrolled in the AHS at age eleven. Children attending these university-track schools also had to choose a specific course of study.

The rigidity of the two-track system required that the most important educational decision in a child’s life—with all of the implications it had for the future—be made at the age of ten. The decision depended to a great extent on the parents’ background, income, and social status. Children from agricultural backgrounds or of urban working-class parents generally attended the Volkschule and the Hauptschule and then entered the work force. Children having lower-middle-class backgrounds frequently received vocational-technical training after the Hauptschule, while children from the upper-middle and upper classes, boys in particular, attended the AHS, which gave them access to university-level education.

The early selection process meant that children of the largest segment of the population, farmers and workers, were grossly underrepresented at higher schools and universities, whereas the children of a relatively small segment of the population, those who had attended higher schools or the universities, were overrepresented. Consequently, the education system tended to reproduce or to reinforce traditional social structures instead of being a vehicle of opportunity or social mobility.

The Act of 1962 and subsequent amendments require that all state-funded schools be open to children regardless of birth, gender, race, status, class, language, or religion. The law also attempts to introduce more flexibility into the traditional two-track system and to provide students with a greater degree of latitude within it so that educational (and hence career) decisions can be made at an older age. Although the primary and secondary school system continues to be fundamentally based on the two-track idea, after a series of reforms in the 1970s and 1980s, ten- to fourteen-year-olds are no longer streamed into A and B groups in the Hauptschule. Graduates of this kind of school also have the opportunity to cross over into certain branches of the AHS track at the age of fourteen or to attend a series of different “higher vocational-technical schools” (Berufsbildende Höhere Schulen and Höhere Technische Lehranstalten), which have five-year programs of specialization in various branches of technology (HTL = Höhere Technische Lehranstalt) and in business and commerce (HAK = Handelsakademie). Other than the less prestigious three-year Berufsbildende Mittlere Schulen, those schools allow graduates to move on to university.

Shifts in enrollment patterns reflect these changes in the school system. In the mid-1960s, less than 10% of all students finished the university preparatory AHS track, and more than 66% of them were male. By the early 1990s, more than 30% of all students finished the AHS track and just above 50% of them were female. Furthermore, a second educational path was developed that permitted some students without a diploma from the university-track AHS to enroll in a university.

As a general rule, the quality of Hauptschule education is high, especially in rural areas and small communities, where the schools have maintained their traditional social importance and where attendance at an AHS involves commuting considerable distances, or, for the inhabitants of more remote areas, boarding. In urban centers with a full spectrum of educational opportunities, the Hauptschule has become less popular, and parents who would not necessarily have enrolled their children in an AHS a few years ago have begun doing so. The increased enrollments have overburdened the AHS and created a shortage of students at the Hauptschulen and at vocational-technical schools.

In some areas, this trend has been strengthened by the number of children of foreign workers in the compulsory schools. In 1991, for example, almost 30% of all school-age children in Vienna were children of foreign-born workers, whose mother-tongue was not German. In some districts of the city, these children exceeded 70%. Although the children of long-term foreign workers frequently speak German well, the numbers of classes in which students with inadequate mastery of German are overrepresented has overburdened the Hauptschule system and made it a less desirable alternative than it used to in the past. Therefore, special remedial and intercultural programs are being developed so that the compulsory school system in Austria can continue to fulfill its educational and social roles.

The SPÖ has continued to press for further reforms of the school system. It argued for an abolition of the two-track system for ten- to fourteen-year-olds and for combining the Hauptschule and the first four years of the AHS into a new comprehensive middle school. As of 2007, however, this alternative has been limited to a number of experimental schools. Other political parties, the Austrian People's Party in particular, remain firmly in favor of the current system, claiming that a comprehensive middle school could not accommodate for different levels of capability and giftedness. They fear a general "dumbing-down" of secondary education as a result. Owing to the particular nature of Austria's educational laws (a two-thirds majority is required, see above) a multi-party agreement is needed to change the status quo.

Matura[edit]

The official term for Matura in Austria is Reifeprüfung. The document received after the successful completion of the written and oral exams is called Maturazeugnis.

In the Gymnasium (AHS = Allgemeinbildende Höhere Schule), which, as opposed to vocational schools, focuses on general education, the Matura consists of 3–4 written exams (referred to as Klausurarbeiten, 4–5 hours each) to be taken on consecutive mornings (usually in May) and 3–4 oral exams to be taken on the same half-day about a month later (usually in June). All examinations are held at the school which the candidate last attended. Candidates have the option to write a scholarly paper (called Fachbereichsarbeit) to be submitted at the beginning of the February preceding the final exams, which, if accepted, reduces the number of written exams by one. This paper also needs to be defended in an oral exam.

Vocational schools with a focus on either business and economics or technical subjects, such as commercial academies (HAK = "Handelsakademie") and polytechnics (HTL = "Höhere Technische Lehranstalt") also finish with the Matura, but last five years as opposed to the four-year Oberstufe (upper stage) of the Gymnasium. In vocational schools, an Ausbildungsschwerpunkt is chosen by all students, which then constitutes the main focus of their schooling, and is a compulsory subject at the Matura examinations.

The grading system is the one universally used in Austrian schools: 1 (sehr gut) is excellent; 2 (gut) is good; 3 (befriedigend) is satisfactory; 4 (genügend) is sufficient and 5 (nicht genügend) means that you have failed. In addition, a candidate’s Maturazeugnis contains a formalized overall assessment: "mit ausgezeichnetem Erfolg bestanden" (pass with distinction: an average of 1.5 or better, no grade below 2), "mit gutem Erfolg bestanden" (pass with merit: an average of 2.0 or better, no grade below 3), "bestanden" (pass: no grade below 4); and nicht bestanden (fail: at least one grade 5). Candidates who have failed may re-take their exams in September/October or February/March of the following school year.

Compulsory subjects for the written finals are German and Mathematics, as well as a foreign language (usually English, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin or Ancient Greek).

The most striking aspect of the Austrian Matura is that it is a decentralized affair. There are no external examiners: Candidates are set tasks both for their written and oral finals by their own (former) teachers. Formally, however, there is an examination board consisting of a candidate’s teachers/examiners, the headmaster/headmistress and a Vorsitzende(r) (head), usually a high-ranking school official or the head of another school. All oral exams are public, but attendance by anyone other than a candidate’s former schoolmates is not encouraged, and indeed rare.

It is, of course, possible for Austrians of all age groups to take the Matura. Adults from their twenties on are usually tutored at private institutions of adult education before taking their final tests, held separately before a regional examination board.

Criticism of the Austrian Matura has been persistent. In particular, it has been argued that the current system encourages rote learning (see also education reform), hinders candidates’ creativity and obscures the fact that the body of knowledge is constantly changing. Various forms of alternative assessment have been proposed, most notably the portfolio as well as teamwork and peer review also in exam situations.

In fiction, Friedrich Torberg’s novel Der Schüler Gerber (1930) about a Matura candidate driven to suicide on the day of his oral exams by his cruel mathematics teacher has become a classic.

Education Technology in Austrian Education[edit]

Austrian Education system define education technology as" the use of technology to improve education. It is a systematic, iterative process for designing instruction or training used to improve performance"

Other definition: "Educational technology is the incorporation of Internet and other information technologies into the learning experience"

Higher education[edit]

Universities[edit]

The General Act for University Education of 1966 and the University Organization Act of 1975 provide the legal framework for tertiary education, and the federal Ministry for Science and Research funds and oversees education at the university level. Austria's 23 public and 13 private universities enjoy a high degree of autonomy and offer a full spectrum of degree programs. Established in 1365, the University of Vienna is Austria’s oldest and largest university.

As a result of the reforms since the 1960s, the university system has changed from one serving the elite to one serving the masses. The growing number of students at Austrian universities reflects the liberalization of educational policy at secondary and higher levels. Between the 1955–56 and 1991–92 academic years, the number of students enrolled in institutions of higher education increased from about 19,000 to more than 200,000. The number of students beginning university-level education after completing the AHS program also increased and amounted to 85% in 1990, compared with 60% in the mid-1960s.

Traditionally, students were free to enroll at any (public) university and in any subject they wished to. It is even possible to enroll in several subject fields concurrently (which is often done by gifted students to signal their abilities to the job market). Recently, restrictions in a number of fields have been introduced. Currently, the affected subjects are: Biology, Human Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Medicine, Pharmacology, Psychology, Journalism and Economic Sciences.

The reforms also meant that university education ceased to be a male privilege. Between the 1960–61 and 1991–92 academic years, the proportion of female students enrolling at universities rose from 23 to 44%. Yet, although women account for almost half of the students at university level, only 2% of professors at institutions of higher learning were women in 1990.

Despite the increase in the numbers of university students and the greater presence of women, universities remain primarily the domain of middle- and higher-income groups. The proportion of students from working-class backgrounds doubled from 7 to 14%, and the number of these from agricultural backgrounds increased from less than 2% to more than 4% between 1960 and 1990. But children of white-collar workers, civil servants, and the self-employed accounted for more than 80% of enrollments at Austrian institutions of higher education in the early 1990s.

The country’s university system was free until 2001; since then studies have been subject to fees (€366 per term for Austrian citizens, about €700 per term for non-Austrians). In 2008, however, the government decided to abolish fees for students who complete their studies in the minimum time and are EU/EEA citizens.

Increased accessibility to university-level education has a number of consequences. The dramatic expansion in the number of students led to overcrowding at many institutions. Some critics maintain that the increasing number of students diminishes the overall quality of university-level education despite increases in federal investment. One obvious problem was that more than 50% of students enrolled at universities in the 1980s dropped out before obtaining a degree. Complex reasons account for this high drop-out rate.[1] Some students simply enrolled to acquire student benefits; others study for the sake of personal enrichment without really intending to get a degree. Some are unable to complete their studies for financial reasons. Although a university degree provides students with a substantial amount of social status and better income opportunities, there has been an increase in “academic unemployment,” especially among degree-holders in the humanities and social sciences.

Fachhochschulen (Universities of Applied Sciences) since the 1990s[edit]

During the 1990s, Austria introduced Fachhochschulen (University of Applied Sciences) in addition to the traditional universities. The training at these colleges is more tailored to practically applicable professional skills. Furthermore, students are allowed much less liberty in choosing which and how many courses they take during a given semester, which ensures that virtually all students graduate within the prescribed time (usually three years for the Bachelor's degree).

Private Universities since 2001[edit]

Accreditation of private universities started in 2001, based on a federal law (Universitäts-Akkreditierungsgesetz). Accreditation includes the right to legally grant academic degrees. The Akkreditierungsrat (accreditation council, [1]) evaluates applicants and issues recommendations to the responsible accreditation authority, the Federal Ministry of Education, Science, and Cultural Affairs. Accreditations must be renewed regularly and can be withdrawn, e.g. in case of repeated academic misconduct. In 2003, the accreditation of International University Vienna was withdrawn. In 2006, when the accreditation of IMADEC University expired, the accreditation council rejected the request for renewal. Today (2011), 13 private universities are accredited (listed here).

The Gehrer-Schüssel reforms[edit]

The former Minister of Education, Elisabeth Gehrer, of the Schüssel government, has enacted extensive reforms to the higher education system — sometimes referred to as the Gehrer-Schüssel reforms — during the last years. Effective 2003, universities have become independent juristic persons and have been given considerably more discretion by the law to act without ministerial control. However, codetermination of professors, junior teachers and students has been replaced by a more hierarchical system with a powerful management on top. The university councils, whose members are in part appointed by the government, are in charge of appointing the senior managers (Rektorat) and overseeing their activity.

Three medical universities (Vienna, Graz and Innsbruck) have been separated from their previous almae matres, and after undergoing the appropriate accreditation procedure two other private universities have now been established. Newly appointed professors are no longer government employees, and universities are supposed to compete with each other.

In spite of the potential the increased flexibility gives to universities, there are some severe problems with the reform. First, budgets have not been increased (except to account for inflation), even though it is more expensive to hire professors as private employees, because of taxes and increased social insurance contributions.

Universities are not able to select students for admission, and they are not permitted to penalize students who abuse free access to university and free choice in studies. Moderate tuition fees were introduced in 2001, which are supposed to create a small incentive for students to graduate more quickly.

Academic degrees[edit]

In Austria, there is no institution comparable to the American college or to the American professional school. Students enroll in one (or more) field of studies, in which they are expected to graduate after four to six years. Since the 1970s, the first degree was the Magister (= Latin for Master, abbr. Mag.) in the humanities, economic and social sciences, law and natural sciences. The first degree in engineering and agriculture is the Diplom-Ingenieur (abbr. Dipl.-Ing. or DI). Recently, and in accordance with the Bologna process, many universities have begun to introduce a Bachelor degree also, which comes before the "Magister" or Master.

Medicine is left as the subject where a doctorate is the only degree (after at least six years). In most subject fields, students need to submit a Diplomarbeit, a research paper of an average of about 100 pages, but sometimes considerably longer. As the requirements differ strongly and are not always clear, some students spend years working on this thesis, thus (usually not deliberately) delaying graduation.

Postgraduate degrees such as LL.M.s and MBAs have been introduced since the 1990s.

However, with the Bologna process, Austria has committed to transform its system to the structure of distinguishing between Bachelor and Master degrees (of 3 years and 1–2 years respectively). In some fields, it is still not clear how this will be made compatible with the traditional requirements necessary to enter a regulated profession.

The debate on reform[edit]

Debates about educational policy in Austria frequently are the result of different perspectives related to the strengths and weaknesses of the traditional education system. Proponents of the two-track secondary system, for example, defend it as performance oriented and criticize the leveling of achievement or lowering of standards the introduction of a single compulsory middle school would involve. Conversely, opponents of the two-track system criticize its rigidity and inherent absence of equal opportunity. Consequently, such bipolar terms as performance and leveling, elite and mass education, and achievement and equal opportunity prevail in educational debates. In some respects, Austrians of different political and educational policy persuasions may expect too many different things from one university system. They expect it to provide general education, as do state university systems in the United States, and “Ivy League” performance at the same time.

This page incorporates material from Austria: Country Studies Federal Research Division. See also Country Studies.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Csizmazia, Roland A. & Jambor, Paul Z. "Korean Education on the Rise: Time to Learn from the Success - Comparative Research at the Tertiary Education Level", International Journal of Academic Research in Progressive Education and Development, (pages 5-7): Volume 3 – Issue 2, March, 2014

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