- As in most of central Europe in the Middle Ages, schooling in the Austrian lands of the period was a haphazard affair. Churches in larger towns and monasteries such as Melk often educated young boys, but primarily for clerical careers. Young nobles often received some instruction in monastery programs. By the 14th century, the need for advanced training for both clerical and administrative careers had spurred the foundation of institutions of higher learning such as the University of Vienna. However, the number of people who received such training remained very small. The Protestant Reformation, which stressed biblical literacy among even modest folk, generated a real need for widespread primary education. To counter this, Catholic princes, including the Austrian Habsburgs, supported the takeover of Lutheran elementary schools by the Catholic church, especially its Jesuit order, a crucial player in Austrian educational history from the 17th until well into the 18th centuries. A new university, dedicated to the improvement of Catholic learning, was opened as well in Graz. Little effort, however, was devoted to expanding the number of elementary schools themselves, so that the numbers who received such instruction, particularly in more rural areas, were still comparatively meager. The reversal of the clerical domination of Austrian education began in the 18th century. Both Maria Theresa and her son, Joseph II, aspired to make their subjects economically productive. The secularization of learning was a key part of their agendas. When in 1773 the papacy itself abolished the Jesuit order, Maria Theresa seized their properties in her lands and used the income to support expanded educational opportunity. In 1774, six years of public schooling became theoretically compulsory for children of both sexes. However, the rule was laxly enforced, especially in the countryside, where the notion and the procedures that accompanied it were often regarded with great suspicion.The political upheavals of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars somewhat dampened Habsburg enthusiasm for an educated populace. The stifling censorship of the regime ordered by Emperor Francis I (1768–1835) and his chancellor, Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, did little to further education at any level. Universities suffered especially, in part because they were in themselves mediocre, but also in comparison with new German foundations such as the University of Berlin, which had been expressly founded to promote teaching and research.After the Revolutions of 1848, however, education at all levels improved substantially throughout the Habsburg Empire. Especially important were the reforms of Count Leo Thun-Hohenstein, which granted universities much more latitude in conducting their intellectual and administrative affairs. Clerical influence remained strong, especially in primary education, but secondary education in so-called Gymnasiums (Gymnasien) now offered a thorough grounding in scientific and historical subjects, though classical languages remained the heart of the instructional program. The Realgymnasium, or Modern Gymnasium, stressed technical subjects and modern languages somewhat more than did its more academically oriented counterpart. In 1869, eight years of education became compulsory for all Austrians. When World War I broke out in 1914, schools providing vocational training and teacher education existed alongside establishments responsible for general education. Correspondence courses were available as well and had large numbers of students throughout the Habsburg Empire.The collapse of the empire in 1918, and the brief rise of the Austrian Social Democratic Workers’ Party to power in the First Republic, opened the door to the systematic democratization of education in Austria. Under the leadership of Otto Glöckel, expanded educational opportunity for the entire Austrian public became a key goal. The general thrust of this movement was blunted, first by the appearance of more conservative Austrian governments in the 1920s and 1930s, then by the Nazis after the Anschluss of 1938.Since 1962, Austria has put in place an elaborate system of public education that seeks to meet the needs of the spectrum of human talents and inclinations. Nine years of compulsory schooling are now required. Primary education (Volksschule) lasts from the ages of 6 through 10. Once this is completed, pupils move in one of several directions. They may continue in a Volksschule, which eventually leads to advanced technical training and apprenticeship. Should they opt for basic secondary education, they will attend a Hauptschule, which lasts until the age of 14. At that point, students can move into vocational training or to a Realgymnasium. The latter can be used as a route to university or university-level work. A third option is to enter an academic Gymnasium, expressly designed to train students for study at one of Austria’s 15 universities. Among these universities are former specialized conservatories, such as the Academy of Musical and Theatrical Arts, which began to function as the University for Music and Theatrical Arts in 2002 (Universität für Musik und Darstellende Kunst).Debates about offering secondary education in a more inclusive setting (Gesammtschule) are still common in Austrian political and pedagogical circles. So is the question of opening medical and other faculties of Austrian universities to applicants from the European Union at large. The globalization of competitive marketplaces has also raised questions in Austria about the quality of its scientific and technical research in traditional universities. In 1999, Austria mandated the establishment of more than 40 industrial study and research centers (Kompetenzzentren). Here research, funding, and representatives of industry and business are encouraged to work together to help Austria meet the standards of the broader world economy and modern science. An “elite” university for high-level scientific research has been established in Lower Austria.See also Women.
Historical dictionary of Austria. Paula Sutter Fichtner. 2014.
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