Educational Challenges in Austria

Written by Aurelia Bejenari

At first glance, Austria seems ideal for living and studying. Its capital, Vienna, has been named the most liveable city in the world for the second year in a row. Its educational system is known for its high standards, high quality,  and a strong diversification of programmes at all levels of education. According to Article 14 of the Austrian Federal Constitutional Law, “democracy, humanity, solidarity, peace and justice, openness and tolerance towards everyone regardless of race, social status and financial background” are fundamental principles that lay at the core of education in Austria. Unlike many other European countries, Austria offers free higher education for EU citizens, making it attractive for international students. The generous government spending on education is undoubtedly a factor making this possible. Add onto this a rich cultural heritage and some stunning landscapes, and the picture looks flawless. However, in reality, Austria, just like any other country, has to face its own set of educational challenges.

Cross-regional disparities

In Austria, regional inequalities in children’s access to and participation in education become increasingly evident when looking at non-compulsory levels of education. The enrolment rate of  3-5 year-olds varies from 82% in the region of Styria to 95% in Lower Austria. When looking at other age groups, enrolment rates range from 97% to 100% across regions for 6-14 year-olds and from 67% to 91% for 15-19 year-olds.

Similarly, the share of 25-64 year-old adults with tertiary education varies from 29% in the region of Vorarlberg to 43% in Vienna. These variations across different regions of the country reflect more than just differences in educational opportunities. To a large degree, they are caused by economic conditions and internal migration patterns.

Tracking of students at a young age

The tracking of students into different types of schools starts at 10, much earlier than the OECD average age of 14. Such an approach may pose significant challenges in terms of equity if not managed properly. OECD evidence shows that early tracking can increase

inequities in students’ learning and exacerbate socioeconomic background’s impact on performance. Although in Austria, the selection into educational tracks is formally based on academic achievements and the recommendations of teachers, in practice, socioeconomic background plays an essential role for families when deciding on a track at the end of primary education.

To reduce the impact of early tracking and provide more equitable learning outcomes for all students, a new lower secondary school model, the New Secondary School (Neue Mittelschule, NMS), was introduced in 2007-2008. However, according to a summative evaluation from 2015, the project has had mixed results. Deficiencies in the implementation process were found, with interpretations of the new model varying between schools and students’ overall levels of achievement were needing improvement.

Teacher Helping a Student / Picture by Max Fischer via Pexels

Integration of students with immigrant backgrounds

Austria faces challenges in increasing the participation of children from certain backgrounds in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC), including immigrant children and reducing the achievement gaps between students from disadvantaged or immigrant backgrounds and their peers.

According to data from PISA 2015, students with an immigrant background made up 20.3% of the total student population in Austria, a percentage significantly higher than the OECD average of 12.5%. Education outcomes for students with an immigrant background remain significantly below those of other students. Additionally, grade repetition is higher amongst immigrant students, with 26.5% of immigrant students reporting having repeated a grade, compared to 12.1% of non-immigrant students (above the OECD average of 19.9% and 10.9%, respectively). According to Eurostat evidence, foreign-born students also have almost three times the early school leaving rates of native-born students.

In analyzing and comparing the situation of children of Turkish migrants in France, Sweden, and Austria, academic Philipp Schnell finds that when it comes to the scale of the disadvantages suffered by children of this background in the education system, Austria is the unequivocal leader. Schnell gives the following explanation for this disparity:

The crucial factors are the intensity of the interaction between the structures of the school system and family resources, as well as the time at which this interaction begins. In the Austrian education system, it has to begin at an earlier point than in other countries.

Thus, in other words, Turkish families and families of different migrant backgrounds often cannot find and allocate the resources that the Austrian system requires at such an early point in time.

Furthermore, when admitting a pupil into the Austrian school system, there are no formal test procedures for assessing the child’s competence in German. Children whose competence in German is insufficient to follow classes are admitted as so-called ex-matriculate pupils for a maximum of two years. Afterwards, it is automatically assumed that pupils can generally follow tuition in the classroom, even though their competence in German is not yet comparable with that of native speakers. This language barrier could have a negative impact on pupils’ education, literacy, and their further trajectory in life. Indeed, a 2022 report shows that the Austrian educational system has yet to fully succeed in guaranteeing that immigrant children can read and write German fluently after nine years of schooling.

Access to education for asylum seekers

Asylum-seeking children can attend primary and secondary school only after their asylum application has been admitted to the regular procedure. Attendance in public schools is not provided for them during the period in which they reside in the initial reception center of the state.

Obtaining access to education for asylum seekers older than 15 can pose difficulties, as schooling is not compulsory after the age of 15 for asylum seekers. Moreover, children who did not attend the mandatory school years in Austria have difficulties continuing their education. Special courses are available free of charge only for unaccompanied children who have not successfully finished the compulsory last school year. This possibility is often not available for free for children accompanied by their families.


In addition to the practical challenges described above, students from various backgrounds face discrimination, which remains a prominent issue in Austrian schools. In 2022, 158 discrimination cases in the education system were reported to the Austrian Initiative for a Non-Discriminatory Education System (IDB – Initiative für ein diskriminierungsfreies Bildungswesen). According to the organization, 84% of reports are cases of racial discrimination. Around 36% of all cases of discrimination reported to the IDB involved decidedly anti-Muslim, racist and/or Islamophobic discrimination  and 1% of all cases reported involved anti-Semitic discrimination.

The Matura exam

The Matura, officially called Reifeprufung, is the Austrian “general school-leaving examination” and represents a prerequisite for higher education such as university, academy, technical university, and college. The exam consists of written examinations, three to four tests lasting for up to five hours each on consecutive mornings in May, and oral examinations, which are held about one month after the written ones.

The Austrian Matura has gone under severe criticism over the years. Critics argue that the exam’s structure is too rigid and fails to assess students’ practical skills and critical thinking abilities adequately. Many experts argue that the system encourages students only to memorize certain subjects and themes, hindering creative thinking. Some specialists have called the Matura “a real lottery system”, with a lot depending on whether the students studied and memorized the particular subject more in-depth than others. Additionally, the Matura exam can be criticized from a socioeconomic perspective, as it may favour students from more privileged backgrounds with access to additional tutoring and resources.


Beneath Austria’s charming exterior, its educational system grapples with hidden challenges. These challenges aren’t exclusive to Austria; they mirror issues prevalent in educational systems worldwide. The disparities in education attainment across regions aren’t just about geography; they echo global struggles with economic inequality. Early student tracking highlights the perennial debate between early specialization and nurturing diverse talents. The challenges immigrant students face mirror those in many diverse societies striving for inclusive education. Discrimination, an unfortunate reality, persists not only within Austrian classrooms but in classrooms everywhere.

Austria’s educational journey is a reminder that no nation is immune to these challenges. It’s a call to action for policymakers, educators, and communities in Austria and worldwide. Before them stands the question: How do we balance tradition and innovation, inclusivity and excellence, uniformity and individuality? This is no simple question, but it brings us closer to reaching the universal goal of a fairer, more equitable education system.


The unlawful pushback of refugees and asylum seekers at the borders of the European Union

Human rights are fundamental parts of our social and governance systems. These universal rights are inherent to every individual regardless of nationality, ethnicity, race or sex[1]. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), every individual has the right to life, liberty and security (Article 3), shall not be subject to torture (Article 5) or arbitrary arrest and detention (Article 9)[2]. In addition, Article 13 and 14 of the UDHR lay down that people have the right to leave any country, including their own to seek asylum in other countries due to fear of persecution in their home country[3]. However, despite all the international norms and legal frameworks in place today, the abovementioned rights of many individuals are violated when they seek refuge in foreign countries. In particular, a recent study found that hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers are being pushed back at the borders of the European Union when they try to escape their home countries in the hope of a better life[4].

The refugee crisis in Europe started in 2015 when a huge influx of third-country nationals arrived at the borders of the European Union. According to the statistics of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than five million refugees arrived at the borders of the Union by 2016[5]. Although the biggest wave of the crisis is over, still many refugees arrive to Europe nowadays as there were over half a million asylum applications submitted to the European Union in 2021[6].

However, tens of thousands of refugees are pushed back at the borders to prevent them from entering the European Union[7]. For instance, it has been reported that Spain deports unaccompanied minors to Morocco which puts the vulnerable refugee children at risk of exploitation and violates their human rights[8]. Another example is the case of Syrian refugees who wanted to enter Croatia from Bosnia and Herzegovina but were pushed back by the Croatian police officers, were beaten and unlawfully detained[9]. Additional countries that were found to be unlawfully denying entry for refugees and pushing them back at the borders with the use of force and violence include Greece, Hungary, Italy and Malta. In addition, Bulgaria is also one of the countries that unfairly pushes back refugees without any assessment of individual cases. This is illustrated by the case of a Turkish journalist who fled Turkey because he was suspected to be part of the Gülen movement which is perceived as a terrorist organization, he was fired from his workplace and feared further reprisals[10]. When arriving at the borders, Bulgarian officers failed to assess his case, disregarded his fear of persecution and return in Turkey, and forced him to sign documents he did not understand[11]. In less than 24 hours after his arrival he was handcuffed and handed over to the Turkish authorities, was held in detention and later sentenced to seven years of prison for his alleged support of the Gülen movement[12].

This case perfectly demostrates the core idea of the Refugee Convention of 1951 that was signed by all the member states of the European Union and that lays down that refugees must not be returned to a country where they face threats to their life and human rights. This is the principle of non-refoulement which is an essential component of refugees’ and asylum seekers’ protection and is part of customary international law, which means that it also applies to states that have not ratified the Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. The original Convention had a limited geographical and time scope as it was only applicable to refugees of World War II, but its additional Protocol of 1967 removed this restriction and this extention of the treaty was also ratified by all EU states. In this sense, countries that unlawfully push back refugees, deny their entry and reject their asylum application without assessment not only violate their human right to life, security, movement and not being subject to torture, arbitrary arrest and detention as laid down in the UDHR, but also breach international law and norms since many of these refugees fled their country due to fear of persecution.

What even further exacerbates the problem is the fact that often times the European Union itself is indirectly funding these pushbacks, thereby supporting human right violations and going against the Union’s core values. The pushbacks were found to often be carried out with the help of Europe’s border agency Frontex which uses the Union’s financial resources. The European Ombusdman found that the European Commission has been providing funding for border control since 2018 but only established an independent monitoring mechanism to safeguard human rights at the borders in the middle of 2021[13]. The Ombudsman ruled that while the Commission lacks the authority to investigate the protection of human rights at border activities, it has the authority as well as the obligation to ensure that the Union’s funds are spent in compliance with EU law and human rights law[14]. Therefore it is the Commission’s responsibility to make sure that funds are not allocated to activities that are not in line with the European Union’s values and international law, such as the unlawful pushback of refugees. Furthermore, according to Article 258 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), the Commission can initiate so-called infringement prodecures which are legal procedures to ensure that member states are complying with EU law[15]. This means that the European Commission can fulfil its obligation of overseeing the protection of human rights inside member states by establishing and funding monitoring bodies and in case of a breach it can initiate such an infringement prodecude and bring the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union. In addition, the Commission can also introduce conditionality between human rights protection and funding, which means that it can establish a system to make funds conditional and withhold funds from member states that do not comply with EU laws and values[16].


In conclusion, fundamental human rights are violated at the borders of Europe and the EU as refugees and asylum seekers are often pushed back and experience violence. Refugees are threatened, assaulted, abused and detained, left to die on their boats or thrown into the sea, which results in thousands of tragic deaths that could have been easily prevented[17]. This violates their human rights, namely the right to life, security and movement, as well as the right to be free from torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, which poses a severe threat to these innocent people’s physical well-being. Lastly, the European Commission is not only ignoring but also funding these human right violations which contradicts the values of the Union. Refugees are inherently a highly vulnerable group and have less access to national courts to enforce their rights and make their voice heard. Therefore it is the responsibility of the EU and its member states to ensure that refugees’ fundamental rights, and it is the European Commission’s obligation to make sure that the funds allocated to member states for border control and asylum application procedures are spent in compliance with the Union’s values as well as international law and norms.


Written by Réka Gyaraki




Bulgaria’s pushback practice censured by ECtHR. (n.d.). European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.

European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. (2020). Dossier Migration.

European Ombudsman. (2022). Decision concerning how the European Commission monitors and ensures respect for fundamental rights by the Croatian authorities in the context of border management operations supported by EU funds (case 1598/2020/VS).

European Union. (1957). Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

OHCHR. (n.d.). What are human rights?

Refugee Crisis in Europe: Aid, Statistics and News | USA for UNHCR. (n.d.).

Rijpma, J., & Fotiadis, A. (2022). Addressing the Violation of Fundamental Rights at the External Borders of the European Union. The Greens/European Free Alliance.

Statistics on migration to Europe. (2020). European Commission.

United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


[1] OHCHR. (n.d.). What are human rights?

[2] United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rijpma & Fotiadis. (2022). Addressing the Violation of Fundamental Rights at the External Borders of the European Union

[5] USA for UNHCR. (n.d.). Refugee Crisis in Europe

[6] European Commission. (2020). Statistics on Migration to Europe

[7] Rijpma & Fotiadis. (2022). Addressing the Violation of Fundamental Rights at the External Borders of the European Union

[8] European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. (2020). Dossier Migration

[9] Ibid.

[10] European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. (n.d.). Bulgaria’s pushback practice condemned by ECtHR

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] European Ombudsman. (2022). Decision concerning how the European Commission monitors and ensures respect for fundamental rights by the Croatian authorities in the context of border management operations supported by EU funds (case 1598/2020/VS)

[14] Ibid.

[15] European Union. (1957). Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union

[16] Rijpma & Fotiadis. (2022). Addressing the Violation of Fundamental Rights at the External Borders of the European Union

[17] Rijpma & Fotiadis. (2022). Addressing the Violation of Fundamental Rights at the External Borders of the European Union