Milestones, Changes and Side-Effects of the Structural Reform Process

The following section highlights the most encompassing policy changes including side-effects over the last 20 years in HE, which have influenced the original structural reform in Austria. The reforms and amendments to the FHStG has the accreditation process of study programmes changed. The practice showed that 6 months were not enough to run the process. Therefore, accreditation has been extended up to 9 months. (First amendment 1994). Furthermore the amendment to the FHStG in 2002 ultimately introduced the new two-tier study system (Bakkalaureat (FH) and Magister (FH) programmes) as possible options for FHS degree programmes. Later in 2006, the degree programmes were renamed to bachelor and master degree programmes (Bachelor-und Masterstudien), including the introduction of ECTS.

After the fourth amendment adopted in 2002, only organisations whose main nature and purpose is to offer FHS study programmes can use the name Fachhochschule. These changes made clear that the government requires a professionalised organisation; that the implementation of the FHS sector needs specialized organisations with core competences and a focus on such study programmes. Just a year later in 2003 the FHStG was adapted, influenced by international developments. First, the birth of joint degree programmes, which allows FHS to offer and run study programmes in conjunction with other higher education institutions, including universities and teacher colleges. Furthermore, FHS could in the future offer continuing education study programmes (Weiterbildungslehrgange). The new FHStG also required providers of study programmes to maintain institutional quality management systems to assure and enhance the quality of the organisation.

One of the mayor changes took place with the tenth amendment, which led to a new quality assurance organisation in Austria for the entire higher education sector in 2012, AQ Austria. This meant the merger of all preexistent quality assurance agencies. The responsibilities previously held by the Austrian Quality Assurance Agency (AQA), the FHR and the Austrian Accreditation Council for Private Universities (OAR) were transferred to AQ Austria. Thus, FHR came to an end after almost 20 years of operation. Sectoral knowledge developed by FHR as well as its independent position to balance top-down and bottom-up approaches were moved and integrated into the new organisation. To date, programme accreditation as the dominant quality assurance practice has been improved and more emphasis has been placed on institutional accreditation in the FHS sector too. A new quality assurance law and framework for Austria was also part of the tenth amendment to the FHStG. The Quality Assurance Framework Act (QSRG) entered into force in 2011, establishing a common legal framework for external quality assurance at public universities, FHS and private universities. The Act contains amongst other things a new Act on Quality Assurance in Higher Education (HS-QSG) as well as comprehensive amendments to the FHStG, the Private Universities Act (PUG) and amendments to the Education Documentation Act (BidokG), the Health Care and Nursing Act (GuKG), the Midwifery Act (HebG) and the Clinical Technical Services Act (MTD).

A recent change in Austria relates to student unions. The Union of Students Act 2014 (Hochschulerschulerinnen-und-Hochschulerschaftsgesetz 2014, HSG 2014) governs the organisation and tasks of the Austrian Union of Students (Osterreichische Hochschulerin-nen-und Hochschulerschaft, OH) and its counterpart unions and student representatives in public universities private universities, FHS degree programmes, and at postsecondary colleges. In 2015, FHS students elected student representatives of their institutions and become members of the Austrian OH. This new, enlarged body, which encompasses all higher education institutions, might also contribute to the further harmonisation of the system as well as give more sectoral power to students.

At the end the Bologna reform brought university education, namely the BA, closer to FHS study programmes in terms of length, goal and programme implementation. However, the third cycle is one of the most challenging issues in the university-FHS relationship. Graduates of FHS programmes that are recommended by the ministry could easily continue on to a doctorate. But based on institutional autonomy, universities make admission decisions by themselves regarding whether FHS graduates can access PhD places. The ministry has less influence and struggles to maintain permeability between the two sectors.

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