reports on another clear illustration of how the European Union, and especially the European Court of Justice (ECJ), affects national higher education policies. Formally, the EU has no authority in the field of higher education. Yet, through spill-overs and ECJ litigation it profoundly impacts higher ed.
Until last year, Austria was the only country that did not have a cap on the number of students in medical schools. Everyone who finished high school and passed the ‘matura’ was able to attend medical school. Most EU countries had such caps in order to avoid an over-supply of doctors and specialists and to prevent spending costly resources on the training of doctors.
In order to avoid an influx of foreign students to study medicine in Austria, the ministry established special requirements for foreign EU students. These requirements however were illegal according to an ECJ court ruling (link
to Chronicle/subscribers only). After all, this was seen as discrimination on the basis of nationality (Article 12 [ex Article 6] of the Treaty is one of the EU core principles and provides that any discrimination on the grounds of nationality is prohibited). The result was that at the day of the court ruling 700 German students had applied for a place in an Austrian medical school.
Response of Thomas Schmid, spokesman for the Ministry of education:
“All over Europe, we have limits in the field of medicine. Germany has just 8,300 medical-school places for a population 10 times the size of Austria’s. So what do many German students do? They come to Austria to get a place, and what happened was that the number of Austrians’ being able to study medicine was being dramatically limited.”
As a response to the court ruling, Austria’s education minister, Elisabeth Gehrer introduced a measure that would end unlimited access to eight courses of university study, including medicine and business administration. She said that Austria’s university system simply could not afford the strain of allowing unrestricted admission of all students.
But this still did not resolve the issue of foreign students. It just means that prospective students (whether they are Austrian or foreign) can not just enter any programme of choice anymore. With nearly half of Austria’s medical students coming from Germany and the prospect that the proportion would continue to rise, the government felt compelled to act. This time, the Austrian Minister seems to have found a way around the non-discrimination principle:
Austria’s education minister, Elisabeth Gehrer, announced on Monday that 75 percent of the places at Austrian medical schools would be reserved for students who finished their secondary education in Austria. Twenty percent of places would be restricted to students from elsewhere in the European Union, and the remaining 5 percent would be allocated to students from countries outside the union.
The legislation had been checked by experts in European Union law. Because the new measure’s provisions are not contingent on national origin, but on where a student completed high school, the government is confident it will pass easily through the legislative process and be enacted within a semester.
There is still hope for the nation state in Europe..