Key Actors and Characteristics of the Implementation Process

The implementation of the reform was a straight-forward process without any major hick-ups or fundamental changes of the process. Of course, since FHS programmes began, the FHStG has been adapted several times. Since 1993,11 amendments have been made to the law. Most of them did not significantly impact the FHS sector. In fact, the last amendment brought the most radical change, which disestablished FHR and replaced it with a national accreditation agency (QA Austria) for all types of higher education institutions. Regular reporting on the implementation of the sector by the ministry and by FHR has also been used to monitor the sector’s developments and identify challenges.

The most innovative part of the new FHS sector was its quality assurance and normative funding scheme. A Fachhochschulrat (Fachhochschule Council, FHR), which reviews and judges the scientific and pedagogical- didactic quality of the study programmes and approves them by decree, was established. The FHR was an independent body outside traditional governmental structures and did not belong to a ministry. The accreditation model is derived from the legal system, in which the sector is to a large extent subject to professional self-control, with national authority limited to ensure this control (Einem, 1998, p. 44). Balancing autonomy and responsibility, quality assurance played an essential role.

Quite soon, in 1996, the newly established FHS institutions and programmes created a FHS network: The Association of Austrian Universities of Applied Sciences (Fachhochschulkonferenz, FHK). The FHK supports FHS in achieving common educational goals and represents the interests of the institutions in Austria and elsewhere.

Furthermore, the institutions providing the study programmes were key actors in the implementation process. They are responsible for the provision of resources, contracts, personnel (administrative and teaching staff) and the budget (Hauser, 2002). Given that the FHStG focused mainly on study programmes rather than on institutions, a variety of institutional types, legal statuses and funding structures emerged. Most of the institutions are private institutions or voluntary organisations by status. Only one - Theresianische Militarakademie (Theresan Military Academy) - falls under the Ministry of Defence and therefore belongs to the federal government. The other providers are predominantly owned by regional bodies, municipalities and other public bodies like the Chamber of Commerce. Private companies also own shares of a few institutions.

Federal financial support to establish the new sector was of course important for the implementation of the policy. The ownership constructs of the new institutions meant that funding also came from other sources than the state (federal) budget, such as municipalities, etc. However, the federal government assumed the key responsibility for funding the main purpose of the FHS, through normative funding schemes based on study places (Lassnigg, 2005).

Indeed, one characteristic feature of the FHS sector is the system of mixed funding based on the normative cost system. The federal government bears 90 % of the personnel and running costs per study place (norm cost model) (Pechar and Pellert, 2005). Further costs (for buildings, investments, etc.) are borne by the provider. Usually the governments of the federal provinces, regional and supra-regional territorial authorities or other public and private institutions assume part of the costs. This deregulation can be linked to the diversified providers’ profiles, their different ownership and funding constructs (apart from the normative funding scheme of the study programmes) and the legal framework of the new FHS sector with its focus on study programmes and not on organisational issues.

FHStG sets out minimum requirements for the providers, requiring a Fachhochschulkollegium (FHS Collegium), which oversees the study programmes similar to a university senate. Described in the FHStG, FHS Collegia were therefore key (internal) actors in the implementation of study programmes and the policy at an institutional level.

Table 2 shows the key actors involved in the implementation and operation of FHS. The roles underline the main goal of decentralisation and deregulation in higher education. Namely, the role of the state is restricted

Table 2 Policy implementation in Austria







Lecturers and students

Access and pursuit of professions

Vocational legislation: law

Awarding the designation ‘FFP



Accreditation of degree study programmes



programmes to FHR

Proposing new and closing old study programmes

Development of study programmes


Consent to the admission criteria




Drawing up the admission criteria


Appointment to FHR

Examination of



Contracts of employment

Recommendations for new teaching staff

Collaboration in personnel selection


Approval of state budget

Financial proposal, Development plan

Examination of infrastructure and financial planning

Provision of funds

Institutional budget proposal

Detailed financial plan


Acceptance of FHR reports, controlling state spending

Acceptance of FHR reports, controlling allocated means

Examination of evaluation reports, final exams

Evaluation of





Adapted from Hackl (2013) pp. 56-57.

to planning and monitoring, while the other newly established entities take over the functional tasks and responsibilities of implementation. The FHR has a bridging function between the ‘field’ and the state. Of course, students and staff are also key to the success of such a policy reform.

The government introduced also a so-called Development and Funding Plan (Entwicklungs- und Finanzierungsplan), which had a five-year planning perspective. This policy document included the long-term funding commitments of the government and future perspectives of the sector (Pechar and Pellert, 2005). The first policy document in 1994 covered the first 5 years of the reform. It included the total number of study places to be financed by the government and also gave target student numbers for FHS for 5 years. With this information, the government explicitly set targets regarding the speed and size of the implementation process (Unger et al., 2005). The development plan also included a set of criteria to select study programmes for future state funding. The key criteria were (Pechar and Pellert, 2005, p. 107):

  • • Demand of the Austrian Economy for such a programme and qualification;
  • • Regionally balanced provision of higher education;
  • • Improvement of admission for new target groups.

With this policy instrument, BMWF delivered subsequent five-year implementation plans for the whole sector. Lassnigg (2005) identifies the first two Development and Funding Plans as being the key milestones in the implementation of the new sector. Bottom-up decisions about location, ownership, profile, etc. were matched with central coordination of the implementation. For each funded study programme by the government a contract between BMWF and the provider was concluded. With these instruments the government led the implementation in terms of design speed, funding and content criteria (Pechar, 2013).

The interplay with other sectors in upper-secondary education and the goal to unburden universities forced the government to consider the development of the other sectors during the FHS implementation process (Hackl, 2009). Therefore, a faster quantitative expansion and a wider roll-out of the policy depended on the development of the other sectors as well. The government decided on a ‘mid-tempo’ implementation (Hollinger, 2013). The implementation of the FHS reforms was both top-down and bottom- up. The provision and establishment of institutions - locations, development of profiles, study programme portfolio and funding schemes - was a bottom- up process. The governmental development plan and funding scheme was a top-down process, providing general directions regarding study programmes, funding and the amount of study places in the field.

The FHR, as an independent, neutral body, took responsibility for quality assurance and accreditation based on a set of quality criteria. From this perspective, FHR to a certain extent balanced the two implementation pathways; bottom-up and top-down. Thus, FHR coordinated and managed accreditation, the ministry provided the funding and development framework, and institutions implemented practices and provided study programmes at the front line.

A missing element, until the last development plan in 2015, was the continuous monitoring and evaluation of the previous development plan. Nevertheless, the overall target figures regarding the number of study places have always been reached. Every 5 years, a new development plan produced further conditions, the roll out of new programmes and an additional number of new study places. However, the criteria for implementation were fragmented. The evaluation of the educational policy goals was not explicit. Instead, the evaluation process had a clear focus on study programmes. Specifically, evaluation indicators were mainly quantitative, such as the number of study programmes, number of students, funding, etc. The ministry also developed a score table, which was used to judge the eligibility of programmes for funding. As such, policy evaluation was limited to the fulfilment of the development plans. This changed in 2015 when, after 20 years, the government evaluated the previous development and funding plan. The lack of prior evaluation can perhaps be attributed to the fact that the policy sought further deregulation of what was an overregulated sector in the 1980s. A systemic review of the policy at regional level, for example, or comparisons with other sectors as well as at subject level was not part of a broader, systematic evaluation process.

The evaluation of quality through study programmes was in the hands of the FHR. As an independent, neutral unit, its role was to evaluate and accredit study programmes and thus ensure a sufficient standard of education in the new sector. The FHK, as the association of FHS institutions and programmes, also had a role as the voice of the sector. These two entities played the most important role in the evaluation and feedback process. Of course, other stakeholder organisations, like the Wissenschaftsrat (Austrian Science Board), also developed review and policy reports (Osterreichischer Wissenschaftsrat, 2010, 2012).

Contrary to the general lack of evaluation mechanisms, at the preparatory stage of the third development plan, in 2002 the ministry asked an expert group to review the implementation of the FHS sector, which was to be used to prepare the third funding and development plan in 2003. The review was conducted by national and international experts with the following focus (Lassnigg, 2005):

  • • The significance of the FHS sector in the Austrian higher education system;
  • • Efficiency and effectiveness of the funding and development planning;
  • • Development and allocation of the institutions in rural areas;
  • • International positioning in light of the EHEA;
  • • Functioning and effectiveness of quality assurance.

It underlined the weakness of the policy evaluation, indicating that the funding and development plans were fragmented and had a strong focus at the programme level. However, the recommendations of this review did not substantially appear in the new funding and development plan. On the contrary the policy level and its review, and the evaluation of the explicit and implicit policy goals, increasingly disappeared throughout the implementation process. This might be due to the success of the implementation as the sector developed well and the identified targets were reached.

The lack of evaluation might account for why one of the goals, which was to bring higher education to the regions that did not have universities, partly failed. Indeed, more and more FHS were established in congested areas, which already had established universities. The market orientation of the institutions, the students’ preference to study in (big) cities and funding mechanisms based on student numbers led to a further concentration of higher education rather than a balanced spread across the country.

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