Universities: Free education, a pipe dream?

A general meeting of students occupying the University of Vienna on 28 October, 2009. Photo: Daniel Weber/Flickr
A general meeting of students occupying the University of Vienna on 28 October, 2009. Photo: Daniel Weber/Flickr
30 October 2009 – Der Standard (Vienna)

Over the last two weeks, Austrian students demanding a free education have taken control of Vienna's universities. But the question of higher education financing should not be a taboo subject, argues economist Andreas Schibany in Der Standard.

It is philosophers, above all, who are forever bringing up the name, and who lose all their usual composure when they spy any threat to what his name stands for: Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835, founder of Berlin’s Humboldt University and framer of the Humboldtian ideal of all-round education and the unity of research and teaching), the most potent and resilient abiding myth of European education policy.

Every educational reform is decried as an expression of hatred for Humboldt, as a threat to the place where the intellectual investigation of the world for the sheer sake of knowledge and insight is still possible – and where the Enlightenment conception of education is now caught in the shackles of the economy.

The spectre of commercial universities

Nor do the philosophically inclined ever weary of warning against the managerial mindset and, above all, against letting universities degenerate into mere training centres. And in their eyes, the Anglo-American model of breaking universities down into those mainly defined by their research output and those that see themselves as high-calibre educational institutions remains an ever-looming “threat to the universities.”

Nowadays, however, we are confronted with images of hopelessly overcrowded lecture halls, an onslaught of German students for whose education Austria is supposed to foot the bill, and sit-in protests in university auditoriums. The financial pressure on universities, coupled with an utterly antiquated educational ideal and mutually conflicting incentive systems, is threatening to tear higher education apart at the seams.

One of the slogans brandished at one such sit-in, “Educational For All – and Free of Charge”, puts these tensions in a nutshell. Education for everybody is a must – only somebody has got to pay for it. So what is needed, and precisely what horrifies the adepts of an elitist conception of education, is to put the current debate in economic terms.

Economic barriers to knowledge

As taboo as it might be, an economic take on the issue would not mean the banal propagation of a mechanistic mindset, but asking how to divvy up scarce resources fairly, seeking suitable incentive systems, and taking into account individual interests as well as social justice.

Public spending on higher education in Austria lies above the average OECD – and EU – levels. What is missing here, on the other hand, is private-sector funding. With the abolition of tuition fees (from 2001 to September 2008), a private source of funding seeped away and we thought we’d finally abolished the last social injustice. Still, it should be pointed out that the number of students increased significantly even when they were charged for tuition.

And yet what could not be abolished by abolishing tuition fees was the fact that qualifying for university entrance depends more in Austria more than in any other country on the parents’ socioeconomic background. These social hurdles could be surmounted, however, by introducing a state-run student loan system.

The benefits of student loans

Such a tried-and-tested system in many another country is, astonishingly enough, anathematised in Austria, which won’t even broach the subject. A state-run student loan system would by and large hold precisely the advantages for which people are demonstrating today: it uncouples the desire to study from the parents’ willingness to pay, makes it possible to pursue one’s studies without having to work at a poorly-paid student job on the side, and, given ample terms of repayment, it permits the costs of an education to be spread over a long period of time.

What is needed, in a word, is demystification, clear-cut incentive systems, and a fair funding system. And it ought to be clear to even the most dyed-in-the-wool Humboldtians that such an economic approach is not the expression of an “estranged mind”, but the basis for a modern education system in tune with the times we live in.

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