No tuition, no problem?

Business | Tech

It is not uncommon to hear a collective sigh from Canadian students when the subject of tuition in Europe comes up. Tuition in the European Union (EU) ranges, in general, from low to no fees for university, while B.C. university students currently pay $5  015 on average annually for undergraduate tuition. Canadian students naturally envy a university system that costs students close to nothing and accepts almost every applicant. But different problems arise from what Canadians assume is an idyllic system of higher education.

Several distinctions appear when you place UVic and a European university side by side. Let’s take, for example, the University of Vienna in Austria, which like UVic is ranked within the top 200 universities in the world in the Times Higher Education world university rankings.

Firstly, post-secondary schools in Austria are publicly funded by the government, which has access to funding from high income tax rates. Austrians who earn between 11 000 and 25 000 euros annually (approximately C$14 000–$32 000) — the lowest taxable income range in the country — are taxed 36.5 per cent on income over the first 11 000 euros. Canadians earning $132 400 or more annually — the highest income tax bracket in Canada — are only taxed 29 per cent. In Austria, higher education is a federal government responsibility. Higher education in Canada is the responsibility of provincial governments. In 2009, the B.C. government relied on student tuition for 25.3 per cent of funding for universities.

Universities in Austria are legally bound to accept all applicants, with a few exceptions for disciplines such as medicine, art and psychology. These programs have entry exams or other admission processes. Austrians and EU citizens do not pay tuition at Austrian universities. Tuition fees in Austria are akin to the price of one course at UVic: a total of 363.36 euros per term (C$465) for non-EU citizens and students who take longer than four years to complete their program (though many programs take three years). UVic domestic undergraduate students typically pay about $2 480 for tuition per semester.

In Austria, tuition fees do not include the cost of public transportation necessary for most students; at UVic, students pay $157 per year for a mandatory bus pass.

Tuition fees were reintroduced in Austria in 2001 (they had not existed since the ‘70s) but were revoked in 2009 due to backlash from students. There are tuition exemptions for students from 50 least-developed countries (for example, Afghanistan and Rwanda) and students in need of financial assistance, for which there are also grants and government support. Government student loans do not exist.

Entrance to UVic is dependent on academic merit and the ability to pay student fees. In addition to tution, the fees for the student society, health and dental plans, athletics and recreation, and bus pass total about $370 per semester. The student union in Austria collects the equivalent of $20 each semester from students.

The differences are even more drastic for international student fees. Incoming international students at UVic pay approximately $8 000 per semester. Studying in Austria costs $470 per semester for students outside of the EU, though there is a lengthy list of students who qualify for exemption from fees.

It is not enough to look at tuition and public funding without measuring the advantages and disadvantages to students.

Universities in Austria are — except for a few regulated fields of study — legally bound to accept all applicants, regardless of academic or financial standing (though in most cases applicants must have a high school diploma). This translates into unparalleled accessibility to higher education in Austria.

The University of Vienna, like UVic, is a research university. Founded in 1365, it is Austria’s largest academic institution and the oldest university in the German-speaking world. The opening of the EU borders accelerated the influx of students into Austrian universities, further stretching resources to accommodate a burgeoning student body. Even with public funding, universities in Austria struggle to afford high-quality resources or enough professors, which can result in large class sizes and teaching methods that don’t take students’ individual needs into account.

Bernhard Doringer, an Austrian law student at the University of Vienna who is also enrolled as a business student at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, noted a difference in quality between European and North American university resources when he spent a semester at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Since American universities have much more money at hand, they’re able to fund much better equipment, [such as] IT systems, library, student services and facilities. In Austria, some buildings are quite old, some stuff is broken and administration does not work as smoothly [with] old and slow IT systems.”

While Canadian universities can control the balance between available resources and student numbers with entrance requirements and tuition fees, Austrian universities are forced to undermine access in other ways.

“Limited resources lead to the inevitable need to keep the number of students low,” says Doringer. “Since anyone must be admitted by legal requirement, universities try to do so by creating knock-out exams with weird questions [that are] extremely difficult [and] regularly fail between 60–90 per cent of students. This also slows people down so they take longer for their studies [and have to pay fees].”

At the same time, students in the Austrian system are free from the financial concerns Canadian students must address. Since 2005, tuition increases in B.C. have been capped at two per cent per year, but students’ debt still averages at $27 000, which is higher than their counterparts’ debt in other provinces. High student debt has negative effects on students as well as the economy, which suffers from graduates being unable to invest in, say, the housing market.

The issues with public education in Austria came to a head in 2011 when the Vienna University of Economics and Business sued the government for requiring the school to accept all students without providing sufficient funding. The university received six-million euros (approximately C$7  770 000 at that time).

Several Europe-wide studies suggest that alternative funding sources should be explored to improve EU universities.

While the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and other student organizations have campaigns around problems with tuition and debt in B.C., the situation has yet to garner the same extreme response as in Austria.

Doringer says he is in favour of a balance between both approaches to higher education (high tuition and no tuition).

“I think that moderate tuition fees in combination with a grant/scholarship system would significantly increase the quality of education in Austrian universities,” he says.