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.
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.
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.
- Asylkoordination Österreich. 2023. “Access to Education. Austria.” Asylum Information Database | European Council on Refugees and Exiles. May 5, 2023. https://asylumineurope.org/reports/country/austria/reception-conditions/employment-and-education/access-education/.
- European Commission. n.d. “Education and Training Monitor 2021. Austria.” Op.europa.eu. Accessed September 6, 2023. https://op.europa.eu/webpub/eac/education-and-training-monitor-2021/en/austria.html.
- Eurydice. 2023. “National Reforms in School Education | Eurydice.” Eurydice.eacea.ec.europa.eu. May 10, 2023. https://eurydice.eacea.ec.europa.eu/national-education-systems/austria/national-reforms-school-education.
- Eurydice. n.d. “Integrating Immigrant Children into Schools in Europe Country Reports.” Accessed September 6, 2023.
- Federal Ministry of Education. 2021. “National Education Report Austria 2021.” https://www.bmbwf.gv.at/dam/jcr:9122185b-9453-4273-afdd-ff36b781f56c/nbb2021_exsum_en.pdf.
- IDB – Initiative für ein diskriminierungsfreies Bildungswesen. 2022. “Analysen Zu Diskriminierung Im Österreichischen Bildungswesen Bericht 2022.”
- OECD. 2017. “EDUCATION POLICY OUTLOOK AUSTRIA.” https://www.oecd.org/education/Education-Policy-Outlook-Country-Profile-Austria.pdf.
- OECD. n.d. “Education at a Glance 2021 : OECD Indicators. Austria.” www.oecd-Ilibrary.org.https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/d2c43767-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/d2c43767-en
- Schnell, Philipp. 2014. Educational Mobility of Second-Generation Turks Cross-National Perspectives. Amsterdam University Press.
- Sustainable Governance Indicators. 2022. “2022 Austria Country Report.”