[eng] Uni-vexed in Vienna

Article published on Nov. 12, 2014
Article published on Nov. 12, 2014

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Too many students and too few resources equal chaos.

University is not what it once was.

Intended and designed as a mecca of knowledge and discussion, a haven for the curious - from being ancient schools of philosophy and law, to allowing the admittance of women to the male-dominated academic world, and becoming the birthplace of dynamic revolutions.

University has always had a place among company that steadfastly and stoutly stands up to the adversities of its day, offering a chance for reflection and a home for prospective graduates - an alma mater.

Not much is left of that romantic sense of motherliness. Cold and stark, the university stands like a Potemkin village in the centre of Vienna. It has kept its imposing appearance and prestigious reputation, but glance across the picturesque arcade courtyard and beyond the marble steps, and you will see the broken picture.

The lustre of passionate lectures, committed professors and the feeling of being welcome, have all long faded.  New students who arrive with such expectations must discover the bitter truth that an opinion or a dedicated attitude does not win any ECTS points, but rather inflexible reproductions of the curriculum in the form of assignments, Knockout tests and multiple choice exams.

University is becoming like school. Anyone expecting to enjoy their freedom after years of rote vocabulary-learning, will be disappointed. There is no need to come up with intelligently formulated, well-considered questions after the lecture or seminar (usually there is no time for that anyway, after all, the next 100 students are waiting outside). You only have to repeat what was taught, and you will be rewarded with points. It is even possible, particularly on highly-subscribed courses, that your professor is not even there to answer your questions - assistants, barely older than the students, are there for that purpose.

After the fifth uninformed staff member, the third failure of the university’s online network, the tenth overlap of modules, the losing battle against unreasonable bureaucracy, the hopeless search for the logout button on the portal, the innumerable encounters with the grubby floor of a packed out lecture hall, and many more negative experiences, the feeling of resignation that sets in simply contributes to a feeling of animosity towards the university.

Admittedly, the University of Vienna is the biggest university in Austria with more than 90,000 students, according to the development plan the staff to student ratio stands at 1:226 (as of 2010) and the budget at €5,086 per student. The LMU in Munich, a comparably-sized university, has some 40,000 students, a staff to student ratio of 1:58 and a budget of €8,816 per student.

Of course it would be unfair to do nothing but complain. There is no question that keeping the colossal University of Vienna ticking over is a considerable challenge. It is easy to get worked up about all the things that don't work, get up in arms about the fact that the University of Vienna only places 182nd in the Times Ranking, and that everything has gone downhill.

It is difficult however, to be in charge of more than 90,000 students, 9,000 staff and all their requirements, and still guarantee enough support for staff and students, finance and award sufficient professorships, keep up with the latest developments in technology and research, and not to lose in the brutal global competition. Only one thing is needed to facilitate all this - money.

The University of Vienna has a global budget of approximately 1.3 million Euros, excluding third-party funds. Understandably, the biggest financial problems are concentrated in the most over-subscribed disciplines, such as law, psychology and journalism. Smaller institutions might have it easier, but even there, there is no guarantee that quality standards are upheld.

For a university rector, it is easier to express exasperation over the lack of these things, to lay the blame on something else, on politicians, students, or external circumstances outside Austria. Don't blame the young people who want to study in Vienna, cheaply or for free, blame the inaptitude of the system. There is a lack of response to increasing infrastructural problems - the professors and rectors want passionate and committed students, but miss the boat when it comes to taking responsibility for dealing with the ministries.

Dare we get our hopes up that politicians will soon take initiative? In 2016 a new performance agreement between the university and the Ministry of Science, Research and Economy is set for development. The aim is "to secure more money for universities within the current financial framework", says Minister Reinhold Mitterlehner in an interview for Austrian newspaper, Der Standard.

Even students are trying to draw attention to the issue, most recently manifested in the movement, 'uni brennt' ('uni burns'). The students' commitment is to be applauded, but who can win when the university they are fighting for becomes the enemy? The trend is nothing new - it did not appear overnight and was foreseeable, a matter of course.

Too many students and too few resources equal chaos.

The call for tuition fees is also controversial. It would certainly be a way of generating more money, and would even have a regulatory effect on student intake, intentional or not. However, in order to charge these fees there has to be something to pay for - substance, something the University of Vienna currently no longer has.

Why should students restore something they didn't destroy?