General higher education policy objectives and governance
Academic and scientific knowledge as well as research are vital pillars of Austria’s overall development and their potential needs to be maintained and strengthened in the long term.
Austria boasts a diversified range of higher education programmes, most of which are offered by universities. In the past years, a large number of coordinating measures regarding the four higher education types in the whole HE sector were introduced in terms of strategy, until in the beginning of 2023 a higher education plan (Hochschulplan (HoP) 2030) was issued. The higher education plan pursues a comprehensive systemic claim within Austria’s higher education system. In the context of the existing strategic documents for the four higher education sectors, it acts as an umbrella strategy that addresses the 76 Austrian higher education institutions as a whole.
The higher education plan aims to promote the existing strengths of the higher education system and to make greater use of existing development potential and, above all, to bring about a long-term, joint development of the Austrian higher education sectors.
- Quantitative targets for 2030: By improving the four quantitative indicators, the quality of teaching should be increased in the long term and at the same time more equality in teaching, research and development and exploration of the arts (Entwicklung und Erschließung der Künste (EEK) should be sought. Specifically, this involves improving the student-teacher ratios, increasing the number of degrees, especially first MINT degrees, increasing the proportion of graduates who are mobile and, above all, increasing the proportion of women in top positions in the areas of teaching, research and EEK.
- Qualitative lines of development up to 2030: Five lines of qualitative development are described, in order to to strengthen Austria as a higher education location internationally on the one hand, and on the other hand to create framework conditions that make it possible to respond to changed educational biographies and to increase the proportion of still underrepresented groups of students. In addition, the contribution of teaching, research and the development and exploration of the arts to overcome current societal challenges is also addressed. Here, particular attention is paid to digital transformation, sustainability and teacher training, as these topics will be formative for the coming years.
Austrian Higher Education Conference (Österreichische Hochschulkonferenz, HSK)
The Austrian Higher Education Conference (“Hochschulkonferenz”) is a standing committee of stakeholders in the field of higher education in order to improve coordination in tertiary education and acts as an advisory board for the Minister of Education, Science and Research. The Austrian Higher Education Conference covers topics that require cross-sectoral coordination, such as improving the permeability in the tertiary sector, strengthening the quality of teaching and learning in HE, developing profiles for HE course contents, promoting non-traditional access pathways to the entire HE sector, broadening gender competences in the HE sector, and further developing the whole HE sector.
Structure and Role of Higher Education Institutions
Following on from general and vocational education and training courses, the 22 Austrian public universities offer Bachelor, Masters and PHD degree programmes in the
- humanities, engineering and artistic studies,
- programmes leading to qualified teaching credentials in upper secondary schools and colleges, as well as
- medical, natural science, legal, social, economic, and theological studies.
Performance agreements constitute the central steering mechanism for public universities and are negotiated every three years between the universities and the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research. General outlines are based on the Austrian National Development Plan for Public Universities (GUEP), the latest was issued in the beginning of 2023 for the period 2025-2030. In addition, all universities have their own development plans covering two performance agreement periods.
Universities of Applied Sciences
21 Universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen) provide scientifically-based professional education and training with strong occupational orientation (e.g. the bachelor’s degree programme includes at least one practical training semester). At present, degree programmes at universities of applied sciences are offered in engineering, economics, health sciences, social sciences, natural sciences, design/arts and military/security sciences.
University Colleges of Teacher Education
University colleges of teacher education are legal entities under public law with restricted autonomy.
The following study programmes have to be provided at university colleges of teacher education as part of initial teacher training:
- bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes to obtain teaching credentials for the primary education sector,
- bachelor’s and master’s degree programmes to obtain teaching credentials for the secondary education sector (general education as well as vocational education and training), in cooperation with universities.
Continuing training programmes have to be offered for all occupational fields related to pedagogy.
The budget for public university colleges of teacher education is allocated by the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research.
For details, please see Chapter 9 Teachers and Education Staff.
Since 2016 university colleges of teacher education and public universities have to offer joint teacher training programmes for the secondary education sector. This new teacher training scheme (“Pädagoginnen- und Pädagogenbildung NEU”) was also followed by an amendment of study law in the Universities Act and the Act on the Organisation of University Colleges of Teacher Education in the year 2017.
Austria has 17 accredited private universities (2022), which are varying greatly in their focus, ranging from social sciences and economics to law, and from medicine and theology to art and music. Private universities cannot receive federal funding. However, they may take part in competitive research programmes and thus apply for publicly advertised research funding.
In order to achieve the necessary accreditation as a private university, the Private Higher Education Institutions Act (PrivHG) requires these to be private educational institutions which are legal entities registered in Austria.
Organisation of the Academic Year
At universities, the academic year starts on 1 October and ends on 30 September. It consists of a winter semester and a summer semester. Detailed arrangements are laid down by the university senate. Also at universities of applied sciences, the academic year starts around 1 October. Again, detailed regulations are laid down by the individual providers.
Relevant higher education laws
Universities Act 2002 (Universitätsgesetz 2002)
Redefinition of the relationship between universities and the State; universities are state institutions, autonomous in terms of their statutes, internal affairs and curricula.
Almost annually, various amendments to the Universities Act 2002 are made concerning the degree structure in all study programmes, innovation in curricula (e.g. the provision of an introductory and orientation phase in the first and second semesters since the winter semester of 2011/12, validation), the introduction of selective admission procedures for programmes that go along with the German numerus clausus system (medical disciplines and psychology) or in study fields with high demand and unsatisfactory study conditions (architecture and town planning, biology and biochemistry, computer science, management and administration, business and administration, business, economics and statistics and pharmacy), but also regarding equal treatment.
In 2013 a new university funding system, the capacity-oriented, student-related university funding, was introduced in two steps and fully implemented in 2018. The universities continue to receive a global budget for the three-year period of the performance agreement. “Global budget” means that the universities are free to allocate their resources within the performance agreement. The global budget of each university consists of three ”pillars: , "teaching", "research/advancement and appreciation of the arts”, and “infrastructure and strategic development". The calculation of the partial amounts for the first two areas is based on specific indicators and is weighted on groups of subjects. Indicators are the number of students who actively take examinations corresponding to a certain number of ECTS-credits in the area “teaching”, and the number of scientific or artistic staff ("basic performance research/ advancement and appreciation of the arts") in the area of "research/advancement and appreciation of the arts”. There are also competitive indicators as an additional incentive (e.g. number of graduates, studying fast, third-party funds and structured doctoral programmes).
Universities of Applied Sciences Act (Fachhochschulgesetz, FHG)
Based on this act which was adopted in 1993, public and private institutions can obtain accreditation as an university of applied sciences (“Fachhochschule”, FH) by the Agency for Quality Assurance and Accreditation Austria.
Act on the Organisation of University Colleges of Teacher Education (Organisation der Pädagogischen Hochschulen und ihre Studien, HG 2005)
Private Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) Act (Privathochschulgesetz, PrivHG)
Based on this act, which entered into force for the first time in the 1990ies and was revised several times, last amendment in 2021, private institutions can obtain accreditation as a private HEI or university by the Agency for Quality Assurance and Accreditation Austria; study programmes can be offered either in accordance with state programmes and degrees or without reference to them.
Federal Act on the External Quality Assurance in Higher Education and the Agency for Quality Assurance and Accreditation Austria (Act on Quality Assurance in Higher Education) (Hochschul-Qualitätssicherungsgesetz, HS-QSG 2011)
This cross-sectoral law regulates external quality assurance, and establishes the Agency for Quality Assurance and Accreditation Austria, integrating the former agencies (AQA, FH Council, Accreditation Council) in 2012.
According to the Federal Act on External Quality Assurance in Higher Education, public universities and universities of applied sciences must be evaluated through external audits, whether by an agency listed in the European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education (EQAR) or another internationally recognised and independent quality assurance agency. Private HEIs have to be accreditated by the AQ Austria.
All HE Legislation References