Education in Europe: Austria, Belarus, Germany (Part I)

Education is a very important issue but also a very controversial one. The blurring boundaries among the member states of the EU and the fact that studying abroad has been made easier mark the need to raise awareness and start a discussion regarding the education systems in today’s Europe. 

OneEurope writers, having direct experiences with various education systems of Europe, bring the analysis of the education dynamics of Austria, Belarus and Germany. The views below reflect the personal opinions of OneEurope writers. 

Hanna Starchyk is an ethnically Belarusian girl, who studied Foreign Languages for five years there. Later on she completed her Master’s degree in Cultural Studies in Germany (2.5 years). 

Paul Hahnenkamp is twenty years old and studies law and history at the University of Vienna. About studying there he wrote: "Imperial pomposity, horse drawn cabs and the 'blue Danube'. Just a few stereotypes named in connection with Vienna. But after studying three years now in the capital of Austria I can assure this: besides the romantic perspective, Vienna is an amazing city!". 

The factors taken into consideration in analyzing these countries were the following: education system in general, attitude of the students, choices after education, facilities and fees.

Education system

Germany:  Children attend 4 years of primary school after which they and their parents have to decide which educational route they’re going to take. They have the following choices: Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium. This division is based on the learning capabilities of children. Thus, if a child shows decent results in primary school, has an interest in learning, they will most likely go to Gymnasium, which is normally finished with Abitur allowing them to apply to universities and universities of applied sciences. Hauptschule is for children who do not show much effort and interest in studies, so they get general knowledge there and later go for professional education. The graduates of Realschule are also intended for professional education but on higher level than their peers from Hauptschule. Both Haupt- and Realschule certificates don’t allow applying to the higher education. But if one feels like continuing studying, they can pursue Abitur in the vocational („evening“) school and then apply to university. For more information it's worth to take a look here

Belarus: It is relatively straightforward: 9 obligatory years of secondary school after which one can go for vocational education, like manual workers, waiters, hairdressers, drivers, etc.  Professional education usually lasts 2-3 years. Afterwards it is also possible to go to college and then carry out university education in the field one completed professional school. The ones who want to pursue university education directly have to go to high school after 9 years of secondary school. High school takes 2 years and allows entering a university. Belarus is not a part of the Bolognia system, so there’s no Bachelor’s and Master’s degree, there is Diploma studies which last 5 year (medicine students: 7 years).

Austria: 9 years of education are mandatory. After these 9 years, there are two possibilities for continuing studies: apprenticeship (3-4 years) for about 250 professions. After this period the apprentice passes a final test and becomes a skilled technician.  If anyone has passed the Matura (exam at the end of high school or apprenticeship) can apply for a university in any field. Laws enforce that Universities can take measures to filter the applications.

 Attitude of students 

Germany: People in Germany do not care very much about university education; it is more of a lifestyle there. Sure, it somehow grants the chance for a better future, but most likely opportunity for research and personal development. In Germany one can work in the media, IT and many others popular spheres having only vocational education. Moreover, vocation education allows people to have a decent salary, travel, own a good apartment, a car and enjoy their life. In general the atmosphere in German universities is very amiable. Students are motivated, they often demonstrate initiatives, are easily inspired and creative, take active part in local student unions and international organizations such as AIESEC, AEGEE. German students like their studies and are pretty aware of what they’re doing, because it was their own choice based on their experience and preferences.

Belarus: Belarusians are mad about university education. It's not about studies and research, it’s rather a status symbol. This is still the Soviet heritage: back in the USSR having university education was extremely prestigious, one could live there reasonably as a worker with professional education, but a doctor, engineer or a professor were regarded almost as the highest class in society. Academics were highly respected in the Soviet society, although it originated from working class. After the Soviet Union collapsed, university education became more available for an average citizen of the independent Belarus. And thereby more popular. Belarusian kids aged 16-18 are already under the pressure of „choosing a profession for the future“. Basically it looks like this: in June you’re done with school, in July you apply to university and in September you already attend classes at the university. If you are admitted, it’s the best scenario. If not… You are a shame. So you can have a gap year, learn more and apply next year. Or forget about it and go for professional education. Now when I have a Master’s degree and the experience of having lived abroad, travelling, and having done a whole bunch of fascinating things, I can’t understand why Belarusian society is so much in a hurry. Why do kids have to go to university immediately after school? Everything is about the attitude. Students are not motivated because society does not motivate them. University teachers (only few of them are professors) as well as school teachers are low paid but have lots of responsibilities, which does not contribute to the flourishing of educational process. In Germany professors regard students as their equals, future academics, they treat them with respect. On the contrary, in Belarus, teachers often humiliate students, especially freshmen. During my 5 years at a Belarusian university I heard threats (addressed not to me but to the whole student group) like „You will not pass my exam!”, „I won’t let you study further“, „You are in wrong place“ often. Why are they so aggressive towards the students? Is it because students have a chance to achieve what they did not manage or did not dare? Such behaviour is common for young teachers. Sure, a lot of students there are in wrong place, but these teachers are as well. 

After Education

Belarus vs. Germany: Belarusian society likes only the image of education, not education itself. There’s also a belief present that university education gives better career and future opportunities, but in the case of mass university education it does not work anymore. Distance education is very popular in Belarus. Not because people want to learn so much, but because it’s a pretty easy way to get a diploma. Most of distance students don’t do their task themselves but redirect them to the firms that provide services such as writing academic papers for money. Usually regular students, professionals on maternity leave or even university teachers do these kinds of services. And the professors of distance students are aware of this. But still generally all of them get their diploma. Diploma is the crucial point: in Germany employers are interested in what you can actually do, while in Belarus they look what you were studying. 

Austria: In Austria more young people/teenagers attend professional education. This situation derives from the school system. Certain types of school allow the students (about 19 or 20 years old) to start working just after graduation, for example the professions of machine engineer or computer scientist. If you attend other types of school, like grammar school, it is really recommended to study at university afterwards. So it truly depends on the type of school you have chosen in your early days. Especially the graduates from technical schools are demanded in the economy. Unfortunately, there isn’t consultation for students in schools about the possibilities they have later on. What still exists, is - a pity in my opinion- the mandatory military service. Therefore every young man has to meet this obligation, it takes six to nine months. In general, you don't have much pressure to study immediately after graduation. Only in some subjects like medicine or journalism you are obliged to participate to exams for the access to university. Therefore everyone, who is interested in these fields, is supposed to attempt the access exam right after school, always considering that if he or she didn't pass it, he or she would try it next year again.  Otherwise it is not uncommon to go abroad for one year working or travelling.

Facilities 

Belarus: The technical side of the educational process is a different story. Belarusian universities cannot compete with European as far as facilities are concerned. The libraries are poor, generally containing old soviet materials and copies (!) of books. Student status practically does not bring any benefits the European students have like free public transport, cheaper books, travel, museums tickets, etc.

Austria: One main problem of the university system is the proportion of professors and students. At some ''mass programs of study'' you can find congested study rooms. The rate of young people, who decide to study after graduation from high school, has risen constantly. To maintain the level of quality access to lectures is therefore sometimes restricted. The restriction can lead to deferrals during the studies. Another aspect in context with the growing number of students is the capability of the university facilities. The main university building was built in the 19th century. It is a stunning sightseeing but not the most appropriate place for studying technological science or similar things. The universities are really committed to provide the newest accommodation and material, but time is often quicker. Besides these deficits, it is to say that the teachings in Vienna have still great significance. You can choose between 187 programs of study just at the University of Vienna. You can also attend the Vienna University of Economics and Business, the Vienna University of Technology or the Medical University of Vienna, to name a few.

Fees

Germany: German students generally don’t pay tuition fees, only small amount in the beginning of each semester to cover public transport expenses. Depending on the university policy, the area which semester ticket covers can be limited to only the city where the university is located, or can include area around the cities and other cities nearby. The bigger the area, the higher the semester deposit. In Germany there’s no state scholarship as in Belarus, but those students who need money can get a student loan called BAföG, and when they graduate and find a job they have to pay some part of this loan back. But regarding the popularity of BAföG one can say that it’s really worth it.

Belarus: In Belarus there’s free university education, but with numerus clausus. It means that there are a limited number of places. Let’s say you want to study design and the numerus clausus in the university you chose is 20. So when the application campaign is over there is an applicant with the best grades in their certificates, so he/she is the starting point – all other 19 applicants will be selected with the relevance to this one. The last one is the acceptance level – it means that those who have less than the last one are not enrolled. Not enrolled for free studies. But there’s a chance to study with tuition fees. Very unpleasant for parents, but if they want their child get educated, they will pay. According to the Belarusian standards the tuition fees are quite high, that’s why some parents get a loan from a bank. Those lucky ones who don’t have to pay tuition fees even become a monthly scholarship from the state, which can become higher or lower according to the progress in studies (grades), if a student failed at least one exam, he/she is deprived of the scholarship for the next semester. 

Austria: The major universities in Vienna are all public. The University of Vienna- founded in 1365 - is the biggest facility with approximately 92.000 students and 187 programmes of study. One main advantage of studying in Vienna/Austria is the financial aspect. In 2008, the Austrian parliament abolished tuition fees. If you attend a regular program of study, you just have to pay an insurance fee of about 20 euros, as long as you accomplish certain study aims. On the other hand, there is to mention that the Austrian state conducted massive cuts in the whole education system justifying it with the financial crisis. Particularly the grand universities suffer from these conditions. Education experts affirm that mostly humanities would supposed to be the disadvantaged ones. Nowadays the Austrian universities have subsequently lost ground in the different university rankings. You can face these rankings with various reservations, but nevertheless it should be a warning to the politicians in charge of the Austrian education system. Besides the university matters, the living costs in Vienna correspond to the European average, though you can recognize a significant rise of rents in the last years. Vienna provides many possibilities, if you are a fan of theatre, classical music, opera or modern or classical arts. There are cheap offers and good deals for students, which allow them to attend museums or theatres without paying more than ten euros. Additionally, party people also have enough choice to go out and get to know Vienna at night. 

I would like to thank Hanna and Paul for writing their opinion about the educational systems they experienced, and for voicing their thoughts in a critical and clear manner.


Edited by:
Réka Blazsek