Why the road to digital transformation is still a bumpy path

19 January 2018

Allow me to start on a personal note. The “United Clouds of Europe” blog has reached its destination: The modified framework legislation in favour of a digital Europe meets many of my concerns and wishes. The “United Clouds of Europe” may not yet exist, but we are well on track. I will therefore expand the topics of my blog and run it by my own name. In my first article I am going to examine the ideas on education policy in Austria that have been brought forward following the new political setup.

Taking a critical look at the current situation, Austria does not belong to the most successful European countries in terms of education and innovation. An analysis carried out by the Austrian statistician Harald Lothaller shows that interest in the subjects most important for digitisation - such as Informatics and Business Informatics - was rather low in the academic year 2016/17. In addition, students only signed up for eight weekly lecture hours or 16 ECTS credits of courses, and the number of graduates points to a high drop-out rate. These are more than enough reasons why those responsible for education policy should strengthen incentives in this highly important field, improve the conditions for studying and in that way raise the number of university graduates. But most of all, they need to take measures to raise the student-teacher ratio which is currently far from adequate.

In his capacity as Chairman of the Austrian Council for Research and Technology Development, Dr. Hannes Androsch recently took the same line in a newspaper interview: “Austria has an excess of administration. On paper, we have twice as many students as Switzerland, but more than half of them do not finish their studies. And those 44% of the current 300,00 students who do finish need an average of 20 terms.”

An emphasis on innovation policy

After less than two months of coalition talks, the new Austrian federal government has been sworn in. In its sections on education and digitisation, the government programme is setting out many points of emphasis aimed at eliminating the shortcomings mentioned before and making Austria a leader in innovation again.

In the education sector, Austria wants to ensure that all future school graduates have the qualifications they will need in today’s job market. Besides the abilities to grasp meaning from reading, write texts in German and earn basic competencies in a foreign language as well as in mathematics, these qualifications also include social skills and digital cultural techniques enabling them to participate with self-determination in the work environment and in social life. Austria wants to achieve these goals by keeping the structural diversity of its existing, proven types of schools and creating a non-ideological framework for autonomous school profiles and incentives in the promotion of talents. I am very pleased that the new federal government is regarding Upper Austria as the pilot region in the latter aspect, as I have been actively involved in shaping the direction in my capacity as president of “Talente OÖ” (“Talents Upper Austria”).

In the area of science, research and universities, the new federal government plans improvements in governance such as a better ratio of professors/lecturers to students, shorter durations of study, lower drop-out rates and more self-determination for students. The examples mentioned earlier show that these plans are indeed necessary.

Finding the right blend

The federal government furthermore foresees the precise definition of areas of excellence in the university sector that are based on the country’s industrial strengths. It will also be important to develop career perspectives in university teaching and research in order to recruit the brightest minds and make Austria’s universities attractive to students from different countries and cultures with curriculae of international significance.

The stimuli planned by the federal government for Austria as a location for innovation comprise a mix of measures such as an adapted RTI strategy strengthening the cooperation between research, technological development and innovative industries, open innovation approaches involving an important number of stakeholders within society, an up-to-date broadband infrastructure as the basis of a digital R&D landscape as well as the digitisation of administration, education, economy and security in Austria.

Based on these measures, Austria is to become a 5G showcase by 2021 with nationwide coverage of glass fibre gigabit connection. In the second half of the year 2018, when Austria will be holding the Presidency of the EU Council, cyber security will be given special emphasis. The country’s cyber security center will be developed into a hightech unit in preparation of the event.

So much for the theory. We now ought to be fair and allow the new federal government sufficient time to implement the set of measures step by step. Nevertheless, we will also closely watch those who are responsible whether they will successfully turn their declarations of intent to strengthen Austria’s research and economy into a reality.