Report Shows Pandemic-Related Peak in Concerns
The Sub-Committee of the Austrian Parliament on Science recently dealt with the annual report of the Austrian Ombudsman Office for Students at the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research for the academic year 2020/21. The report provides information on student concerns addressed to it in connection with study, teaching, examination, service and administrative operations at higher education institutions and at institutions dealing with student issues. According to the Austrian Ombudsman Office, the concerns submitted show that the 2020 and 2021 pandemic had a noticeable impact on student operations. According to the report, problem areas that became more prominent due to the pandemic were online exams, study abroad, and student housing. In the 2020/21 academic year, the ombudsman’s office also once again recorded an increase in the number of concerns brought to it within a year, with a total of 837, the head of the office, Josef Leidenfrost explained. As in previous years, issues relating to study conditions were clearly at the top of the list of the most frequent topics. Other frequent topics were admission to studies and problems with student grants. The ombudsman’s office also received a large number of inquiries regarding academic degrees and the recognition or crediting of achievements.
Asked about the most recent developments in Ukraine, Leidenfrost said that the ombudsman office is a permanent member of a special task force within the ministry in looking into daily issues with refugess and their families. The office earlier had endorsed a trilingual declaration on supporting Ukrainian Students and Professors in Austria. (https://hochschulombudsmann.at/2022/03/18/die-ombudsstelle-fuer-studierende-zur-aktuellen-situation-in-der-ukraine/).
The report also contains numerous recommendations to the legislators and to the higher education institutions, which the MPs took as an opportunity to ask questions. Martina Künsberg Sarre (NEOS) and Andrea Kuntzl (SPÖ) raised the issue of student grants, which were last increased in 2017. Minister Martin Polaschek informed them that the ministry is already working on an amendment, which should contain two key points, namely the increase of the study grant and the expansion of the circle of recipients. Katharina Kucharowits (SPÖ) referred to the recommendations formulated by the Ombudsman’s Office on student residences. She was told by Minister Polaschek that there were already talks with home providers. When asked whether the Ministry was thinking of reintroducing housing subsidies for student residences in view of the housing problem and rising rental costs, Polaschek was dismissive. At the moment, he sees no reason to do so, since there are enough developers who are willing to build dormitories.
Petra Oberrauner (SPÖ) pointed out the increase in the number of concerns brought to the ombudsman’s office and wanted to know whether an increase in staff was planned. Minister Martin Polaschek stressed that his ministry was considering this if the demand for advice continued. The Minister took the opportunity to thank Ombudsman Josef Leidenfrost, who will be leaving his post at the end of March, for his many years of dedication and tireless commitment to student concerns. The thanks were echoed by members of all parliamentary groups. Despite initial resistance to its establishment, the ombudsman’s office has been able to establish itself over the past two decades and has earned high recognition, emphasized committee chairman Martin Graf (FPÖ).