The origins of the Austrian school system go back to the reign of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, who saw illiteracy as a political problem that the government should address through education. Public schooling was therefore established in 1774 under the School Edict for all German Regular, Main and Trivial Schools in all Imperial and Royal Dominions (Allgemeine Schulordnung für die deutschen Normal-, Haupt- und Trivialschulen in sämtlichen k.k. Erblanden) (Federal Ministry of Education 2014a). Since the passage of this educational reform, six years of primary school have been compulsory in Austria.
The Imperial Primary Education Act (Reichsvolksschulgesetz) of 1869 extended the duration of compulsory schooling to eight years, for children aged six to 14.
With the Compulsory Education Act of 1962, compulsory schooling was extended to its present-day duration of nine years.
In recent years, educational policy has increasingly focused on participation in early education. Since 2011/12, at least one year of kindergarten attendance before entry into primary school has been obligatory. Since this reform, compulsory education has consisted of one year of early education plus nine years of school for children aged five to 15.
Within the secondary education system, general secondary schools are being replaced by middle schools. There is currently a fierce debate over whether the new middle school should also replace the academic secondary school in lower secondary education, and thus become a comprehensive school for all 10-14-year-olds.
Teacher education is also a topic that has generated considerable debate. The strict separation of teacher education at universities (for teachers of academic secondary schools and higher vocational colleges) and at university colleges of teacher education (for teachers of primary schools and general secondary schools or new middle schools respectively) is being restructured. Within the new system of teacher education, universities and university colleges of teacher education will cooperate closely.
In tertiary education, the most important new development in recent decades is likely the rise of universities of applied sciences. This form of tertiary education was established in 1994 in Austria. Just 20 years later, considerably more than 40,000 ordinary students are enrolled in universities of applied sciences (43,593 in winter semester 2013/14, cp. Statistics Austria 2014b). Nevertheless, tertiary education still largely takes place in traditional public universities. The growth in the number of students from both within and outside of Austria has been so great that public universities have had to abandon the principle of free access and limit study places in some fields.
Organisation of the educational system
One year of kindergarten is compulsory in Austria, but children usually attend kindergarten or other preschool child care facilities for several years. More than four-fifths of three-year-olds are educated in institutional childcare facilities (Statistics Austria 2014a, 22). At the age of six, children start their compulsory schooling career after having attended one or more years of kindergarten.
More than 98% of six- to nine-year-olds go to primary school (Statistics Austria 2014a, 24). The rest attend special school or alternative schools. Under certain conditions domestic tuition is also allowed.
Lower secondary education
Primary school lasts for four years. During the subsequent four years children attend a general secondary school, a new secondary school, or an academic secondary school. However, starting in the 2015/16 scholastic year there will be no new classes in general secondary schools. Primary school leavers will thus attend either a new secondary school or an academic secondary school. Less than 3% of 10-13-year-olds go to a special school or an alternative school, or are home-schooled (Statistics Austria 2014a, 27). To enrol in an academic secondary school, students must have good grades in primary school or pass a qualifying examination.
Upper secondary education
At the age of 14 (if they have not repeated a class) young Austrian students must make a very serious decision. Only a minority (around one-quarter of the pupils in the ninth grade) stay in general education and attend an upper level academic secondary school (four years). Around one-fifth of students attend a one-year pre-vocational school to complete their compulsory schooling, typically followed by enrolment in a vocational school for apprentices (up to four years). More than one-third of students choose to attend a five-year higher vocational education college, and about one-fifth enrol in a school for intermediate vocational education (up to four years). Austria is therefore the OECD country with the lowest share of upper secondary education students in general education programmes, and the largest share of students in vocational and pre-vocational programmes (OECD 2014, 314).
Universities have a very long tradition in Austria, starting with the founding of the University of Vienna in 1365. Today there are more than 20 public universities in Austria and about a dozen private ones. Since 1994 traditional forms of tertiary education have been complemented by universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen). Public school teachers receive their vocational education at university colleges for teacher education.
Most tertiary education programmes follow the Bologna degree structure, and thus offer bachelor’s or master’s programmes. There are, however, also a large number of diploma programmes consisting of eight to 12 semesters. Doctoral and PhD programmes are offered exclusively by universities.
Compulsory education is regulated in the Compulsory Education Act of 1985 (Schulpflichtgesetz 1985). Under sections 2 and 3 of this law, compulsory schooling starts on the first of September following a child‘s sixth birthday and lasts nine school years. This applies to all children who reside permanently in Austria (under section 1 of the cited law).
In practice, however, compulsory education starts one year earlier (i.e., at the age of five), as a year of kindergarten was made compulsory in Austria in 2010/11 (Agreement pursuant to article 15a of the Federal Constitutional Law on the introduction of free and compulsory half-day early education in institutional childcare facilities (Vereinbarung gemäß Art 15a B-VG über die Einführung der halbtägig kostenlosen und verpflichtenden frühen Förderung in institutionellen Kinderbetreuungseinrichtungen)). Thus, compulsory education starts at the age of five and lasts 10 years.
After this period of time compulsory education ends, irrespective of the educational level the child has reached. A typical compulsory education career consists of one year of pre-primary education, four years of primary education, four years of lower secondary education, and one year of upper secondary education. Therefore, a student should normally be in upper secondary education at the age of 15, although this does not apply to students who repeated a class. Students who repeated several times will not have completed lower secondary school at the age of 15. For around 6% of students, compulsory education ends before they are able to complete lower secondary school, although the majority of these students stay in school even though they have no legal obligation to do so. Regrettably, however, about 1.5% of 15-year-olds quit school without having completed lower secondary education (Statistics Austria 2014a, 49).
While most Austrian parents and legal guardians send their children to school, they are not required to do so to meet their legal obligations. Under the Compulsory Education Act, domestic tuition is permitted, provided the education the children receive at home is demonstrably equivalent to the education offered in public schools ( article 11 of the cited law). The same principle applies to education in private schools not regulated by public law.
However, most private schools in Austria are regulated by public law, and are thus treated as equivalent to public schools in terms of meeting compulsory education standards under the Compulsory Education Act (cp. §4). Nonetheless, 92% of Austria’s school-age pupils attend state schools (Statistics Austria 2014c).
- Federal Ministry of Education (2014a): Brief Outline of the Austrian Education System. Accessed at: https://www.bmb.gv.at/enfr/school/schools.html (October 2014)
- Federal Ministry of Education (2014b): Statistical Guide 2013. Key facts and figures about schools and adult education in Austria. Accessed at: https://www.bmb.gv.at/schulen/bw/ueberblick/statisticalguide_2014.pdf (October 2014)
- Federal Ministry of Education (2014c): The Austrian Education System. Accessed at: https://www.bmb.gv.at/schulen/bw/ueberblick/bildungssystem_grafik_2014_e_19003.pdf (October 2014)
- OECD (2014), Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing.
- Statistics Austria (2014a): Education in figures 2012/13 – Key indicators and analysis.
- Statistics Austria (2014b): STATcube - Statistical Database “Studies at universities of applied sciences”. Accessed at: http://statcube.at/superwebguest/login.do (October 2014)
- Statistics Austria (2014c): STATcube - Statistical Database “School statistics. Pupils from 2006”. Accessed at: http://statcube.at/superwebguest/login.do (October 2014)