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The Austrian educational system reflects a tradition of comprehensive learning in all areas of personal and professional life. Its highly stratified and hierarchical organization permits a degree of coordination among various principal participants in the vocational, academic, research, and economic sectors. The synergy between the various "social partners" and the availability of diverse avenues toward initial and further qualification provides a high degree of stability, which benefits both employers and employees. Employers contribute to the educational process by providing the vocational and professional infrastructure within which students can learn "on the job." Employees bring a high degree of practical and theoretical preparation to the work place.

The hierarchical nature of Austrian education can also be an impediment to flexibility, however. The fact that matters of educational administration and policy implementation devolve from the federal level means that there is a potential delay in reacting to changing educational, vocational, or social circumstances. Developments in the employment sector, for example, materially affect the number of apprenticeships available. This fact, in turn, affects career guidance counseling, as well as development of new curricula and educational methodologies, for example in information technology.

The history of Austrian education during the past four decades has been characterized by an increasing shift toward a more open, accessible series of permeable educational options. Much has been done to make the rigid tracking system, particularly into the secondary schools, more flexible, to allow more opportunity for transfer between vocational, professional, and academic courses of study. In addition to greater permeability, federal legislation has sought to recognize the exigencies of regional, economic, and demographic differences by phasing in greater school autonomy, particularly in the upper secondary and postsecondary vocational and technical sector. The introduction of largely customized vocational-courses represents an important step in that direction.

Other initiatives have failed because of the constitutionally mandated two-thirds majority requirement for key changes in educational legislation. An example is the Social Democrats' attempt to replace the formal distinction between the Hauptschule (general secondary school) and the AHS (academic secondary school) with a more unified, comprehensive secondary school. In the area of higher education, the steady increase in student enrollments has strained the capacity and infrastructure of many universities. In addition, critics continue to point to the relatively high percentage of students who do not complete their degree programs "on time," or not at all, to suggest that greater permeability in the secondary schools has led to a lowering of academic standards, which in turn affects the intellectual preparation of students for university study.

As the Austrian educational system becomes more integrated into the European Union's comprehensive transfer model, the question of reform will necessarily be debated in a broader context. Given the traditional strengths of the Austrian educational system at all levels, there is every reason to believe that Austrian will not only be a recipient of European Union directives, but that it will also have a voice in shaping them.


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—Siegfried Christoph

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