by Manuel Schlaffer

Qualified graduates are the foundation of a functional economy. A functional educational system is – or at least should – therefore be on top of every government’s agenda. Luckily ever more European countries give a broader range of people the opportunity to study at university. However, in the recent past, this has started to cause a new conflict, as many institutions of higher education have surpassed their capacities as ever greater numbers of people are beginning to study.

The consequences of overcrowding at universities are tangible: very often they result in high dropout rates, as many get frustrated by the inability to study at their own pace, with courses blocked and lecture halls crowded. To prevent this and the resulting loss in quality in teaching, academic admission conditions that link enrolment to academic suitability could be a solution – bearing in mind that social inequality might be the result. Yet this is a problem we should soon get under control, before a noticeable drop in the quality of the academic community is the result.

Several European countries nowadays grant all their citizens the opportunity to study, without or only having to pay very little in student fees. Although it is a remarkable sign for the level of social equality the European Union has already reached, this is accompanied by huge problems. On a global scale, with China strengthening its position as the cheapest manufacturer offering ever higher quality, Europe needs to position itself as the home of highly trained specialists.

To achieve this goal, a high standard of education must be guaranteed across the EU. Since enrolment at a university is often linked to the completion of a generalist programme at secondary education entitling one to access higher education, many people start studying without ever having spent a second on thinking what they want to do. This results in a major drop in quality.

To prevent this from happening, access tests which are fitted to the field of study need to be introduced. Although many people might consider this a step backwards to social exclusion, it is the only way to maintain a high quality in education and give people with a higher potential to complete their studies the opportunity to do so in much better conditions.

From a financial point of view, this change could even be turned into an advantage: fees collected from every applicant might be used to finance the testing and the administration it involves. Of course, every applicant who passed the tests would get their fee refunded, thereby having no negative side effects for those who intend to seriously pursue their studies – and of course, it would further reduce the number of applicants to seek enrolment without knowing whether the field of study is suitable for them.

A very good example for the benefits of access tests is the Vienna University of Economics. It is one of the leading Economics Universities in the world and consequently enjoys a very high standing is Austria. With one of the best graduate employment rates, especially in high-earning jobs, most Austrians planning to climb the career ladder as high as possible enrolled at this university.

Since the University had no means to turn away unqualified students, lecture halls gradually became so crowded that people had to sit on the floor. Not only did this render the study slightly uncomfortable, it in fact caused a quite dangerous situation, as it for instance prevented a quick evacuation of a lecture hall in an emergency.

After the Vienna University of Economics introduced limitation on access in 2014, application numbers dropped dramatically – indeed so much that no entry test had to be held at all. The sheer fact that people now had to complete a test prior to commencing their studies compelled them to spend time reconsidering their idea to pursue a certain field of studies.

Besides the fact that students opting for a degree programme ill-suited for their talents might spoil the study experience of their peers, these citizens are a weight that the social state needs to carry a little longer. With every added year that these students take longer to finish, the state needs to financially support them.

Hence it should become mandatory to undertake an evaluation at some point prior to one’s study: this could help people to figure out which field fits them best and prevent unnecessary delays in their professional progression.
Students are Europe’s future and its hope. Granting them the best prospects to help them develop supreme skills should be on top of every government’s agenda.

25 May 2017
This text was published in Bullseye issue 68