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 three additional years of education beyond the minimum mandatory level. The legal basis for primary and secondary education in Austria is the School Law of 1962. The federal Ministry for Education is responsible for funding and supervising primary and secondary education, which is administered on the provincial level by the authorities of the respective provinces.
The country's university system is also free. The General Law for University Education of 1966 and the University Organization Law 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. Twelve universities and six academies of music and art 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.
Federal legislation played a prominent role in the education system, and laws dealing with education effectively have a constitutional status because they can be passed or amended only by a two-thirds majority in parliament. For this reason, agreement between the ÖVP and the SPÖ is needed to pass or amend legislation relating to education.
Private schools that provide primary and secondary education and some teacher training are run mainly by the Roman Catholic Church and account for approximately 10 percent 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.
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 Law 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-- AHS). AHS is an umbrella term used to describe institutions providing different fields of specialization that grant the diploma (Reifeprüfung or Matura) needed to enter university.
Before the 1962 reform, the great majority of children--more than 90 percent--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 percent--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 he 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 School Law 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.
Shifts in enrollment patterns reflect these changes in the school system. In the mid-1960s, less than 10 percent of all students finished the university preparatory AHS track, and more than 66 percent of them were male. By the early 1990s, more than 30 percent of all students finished the AHS track and just above 50 percent 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 earlier would not have enrolled their children in an AHS 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 percent of school-age children in Vienna were the children of foreign workers. In some districts of the city, these children exceeded 70 percent. 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 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 1993, however, because of the resistance of other political parties, this alternative has been limited to a number of experimental schools.
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 increasing 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 having completed the AHS program also increased and amounted to 85 percent in 1990, compared with 60 percent in the mid-1960s.
The reforms have also meant that university education ceased to be a male privilege. Between the 1960-61 and 1991-92 academic years, the number of female students enrolling in universities rose from 23 to 44 percent. Yet, although women account for almost half of the students at university level, only 2 percent of the 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 number of students with working-class backgrounds has doubled from 7 to 14 percent, and the number of these with agricultural backgrounds increased from less than 2 percent to more than 4 percent between 1960 and 1990. But children of white-collar workers, civil servants, and the self-employed accounted for more than 80 percent of enrollments at Austrian institutions of higher education in the early 1990s.
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 percent of students enrolled at the universities in the 1980s did not successfully complete a degree program. Complex reasons account for this high drop-out rate. Some students enroll simply to acquire student benefits. Others study for the sake of personal enrichment without 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.
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 one 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.
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