Studying at the University of Innsbruck as an International Student. Experiences of Students in the 1970/80s
By Sarah Eggel, Vanessa Roa Vergara, and Vanessa Lechner
It is often easy to forget the many difficulties that students from abroad face when attending university as local students. Not only nowadays, but throughout history, international students have always had more requirements in order to apply and be admitted to university. In this blogpost, we will highlight the experiences of seven former students at the University of Innsbruck back in the 1970s and 80s. We will look at factors such as access to university and the labor market, financing of studies, and the aspect of language.
The important Role of the Austrian Foreign Student Service (ÖAD) in the 1970s and Students’ Protests
In order to contextualize the foreign students’ situation in Austria and understand the reality they faced at the time; we find it relevant to discuss the influence of the ÖAD on this population.
According to Marcel Amoser1 the Austrian Foreign Student Service (ÖAD), founded in 1961, focused on helping foreign students get settled and served also as an instrument to keep track of them: “At the end of the 1960s, the Ministry of Interior sought a direct line to the university to obtain information on the progress of foreign students, because ‘quasi-students’ were considered a security policy problem. Between 1967 and 1974, there was an agreement between the Federal Police Directorates and the ÖAD.” Thereafter, letters of recommendation from trusted teachers formed the basis for extending residence permits for students.
The ÖAD also established specific requirements for studying at the university. Preparatory programs for students from developing countries were mandatory. The main objective of the programs was to convey a good image of Europe. The abundance and the topics of the preparatory programs became the object of nonconformity of students from these regions, as students felt that the topics were unnecessary and did not fit the chosen subject of study. This discontent manifested itself in April 1974 when students attending the University Preparation Programs in Innsbruck protested, demanding “a residence permit for the duration of their studies, the abolition of the University Preparation Programs, the ÖAD, and the system of Lecturers of confidence, as well as social and legal equality between Austrian and foreigners.” The strike ended in June 1974 with partial success. Teachers’ letters of recommendation were abolished with a decree of the Ministry of Interior and the preparation programs were reformed. However, the number of courses was maintained and the ÖAD continued its activities without further restructuring.2
Foreign Students in the files of the Center for Migrants in Tyrol (ZeMiT)
The previously mentioned information is our starting point to take a closer look at the experience of foreign students in the 1970s and 80s at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. As part of the 350th anniversary of the University of Innsbruck, the Center for Migrants in Tyrol (ZeMiT) organized an exhibition on international students and their experiences in the post-war period until Austria’s accession to the EU, called Multiversity. International Students in Innsbruck – 1955 to 1995. The exhibition was based on students’ personal experiences and other sources.3 We were very lucky to be able to get access to their archive called Dokumentationsarchiv Migration Tirol, and build this blog on the personal experiences of the people they interviewed for this project – as the interviews were in German, we translated them as true to the original statements as possible.
Arrival: Language, Admission, and the University of Innsbruck
Language is a fundamental part of people’s lives because it is through language that relationships of all kinds are established with others. The privilege and luck of speaking the language that is spoken in a country are not afforded to everyone, this especially applies to people coming from abroad. When you cannot communicate in or understand the language that is spoken, and thus, often taken for granted, you can feel and be incredibly restricted. Kyriaki Adaktylou4 describes this feeling very well in her interview stating, “I felt handicapped, restricted, in that sense. I have to admit that for me it’s almost like a trauma, this absence, the lack of language, and this speechlessness that results from it”.5 Additionally, Daniel Dratele6 mentions that “at the end of the day we always had a headache,”7 which emphasizes how exhausting it can be to speak a second language and that very often it can feel more like a chore rather than simply communicating.
The University’s Language Policy
For foreign students, admission to the University of Innsbruck required a higher education entrance qualification from their country of origin. Students from certain countries of origin had to submit an application from home for admission and apply for a visa with the Austrian representative authorities. After approval and entry, students with insufficient German language skills were required to take the Supplementary German Language Examination.8
Personal Experiences: “It was intense”
For some, German lessons took over almost every day as Daniel Dratele recounts, “every day. Almost every day. So, I think three times a week in the house at the Canisianum. Two times at the university. That’s almost five days a week. (…) It was intense, yes. Afterwards, we had to take a German exam at the university. If you didn’t pass it, you couldn’t study. We first had to pass the German exam and then we were admitted.”9 Additionally, he highlights that the first semester was hard because the classes were in German, and speaking a language is very different from writing in it. Moreover, professors often spoke fast which made it even harder for someone whose first language is not German.10
Similarly, Adel El Sayed11 mentions that German was a challenge for him because in order to understand philosophers or attend complex lectures in political science it is not enough to learn German for only one or two years: “The university language exam was a huge obstacle for me. (…) It was difficult. I kept asking people who had taken the exam and didn’t tell me about the fact that they had never passed the exam, yet still claimed that they had passed.”12
Ali Rıza Yiğitbaşı13 shares the experience of having known not a single word of German; however, contrary to the others he had a quite different experience in acquiring the German language: “I attended it [German language class] for one semester and then at the end of the first semester I took a language exam in German. I successfully passed this exam. Then, in order to improve my language skills, I wanted to attend the university for another semester, or rather this language course. Then I had to take part in this entrance examination in Turkey again so that I could study in Austria. The entrance requirements for Turks, or for many foreigners, were very strict at that time.”14
Moreover, almost all of the interviewees agreed that regarding the issue of language, the professors were accommodating and helpful. Many professors allowed the students to take the exams orally instead of written, which helped them a lot.
Daily Life: Financial Situation and Work Opportunities
In addition to language challenges, students also had to deal with the difficulty of financing their studies. The question of financial resources played (and still plays) a major role in whether one can afford to study or not.15
Requirements and Laws concerning International Students
Some foreign students were not allowed to work in Austria. The visa was strictly limited to residence and study. The required proof of livelihood they had to bring was an enormous challenge. Selling newspapers was one of the few opportunities that didn’t require an employment status. For many, the last resort was unreported employment.16 Daniel Dratele mentions in his interview that it was not only food that needed to be paid for but also his shared room, general bills, health insurance, the tuition fee, and the visa: “You’re turning in circles. You’re fighting but you don’t know against whom. It was as though you would hit your head against a brick wall.”17 Moreover, he was homeless for almost six months until someone offered him the opportunity to work as a bricklayer. While the work was illegal, there was no other way to get out of poverty: “I had to. When people say that human dignity is inviolable… Well, the law did exactly that, it hurt foreign student’s dignity. They were very sharply, very brutally attacked.”18
Personal Experiences: Financial Struggle and Family Support
Ali Rıza Yiğitbaşı explains that during his studies he not only struggled with the German language but also financially.19 Tamás Meleghy20 mentions, “I saved a bit of money when I was working in Germany, so I was able to finance my time in Innsbruck and I also (…) worked as a waiter in a restaurant and did similar jobs.”21 The interviewees worked different jobs to finance their studies. While some weren’t afforded the possibility to work, others worked as translators after they learned German, like Sıddık Unus22 who reveals, “I worked as a translator in a hospital. I was able to make very good money through translating.”23
While some had to take care of their finances by themselves, others had support from their family. For instance, Mostafa Rajaee24 received financial support from his family, saying “maybe I was one of the lucky ones, I got money from home, my parents supported me a lot.”25 Similarly, Kyriaki Adaktylou received money from home because she had to present her savings book to the immigration office every year. This was to prove that she had the financial means and won’t be a burden to the state. Her parents supported her and sent her money in advance to have a good sum in her savings account. Although Kyriaki Adaktylou knew that nothing terrible could happen, it was never a good feeling to go there, wait and be asked inside to demonstrate her savings.26. Even nowadays foreign students have to present their savings book in order to prove they won’t be a burden to the Austrian state.
The Situation at Present
Finally, we also want to give a brief overview of the current situation of Non-EU foreign students in comparison to EU students in Austria to illustrate the progress, or setbacks, that were made. While tuition at Austrian universities is free for EU students, non-EU students have to pay 726.72 Euros per semester. According to Judith Kohlenberger, Theresa Herzog, and Tobias Schnitzler differences can also be observed in terms of dropout rates: “Between 20 % and 30 % of international bachelor’s students drop out in their third semester, compared to 19 % of Austrian students.”27 Amongst others, these dropout rates are related to bureaucratic requirements, language problems, and financial difficulties from a social perspective, “almost every second student experienced discrimination at university and roughly 50 % would like to have more contact to native students.”2 These facts show that there is still a long way to go to ensure equal opportunities for international students in Austria.
Sarah Eggel did her BA in Sociology and is now studying Gender, Culture and Social Change at the University of Innsbruck. She is particularly interested in social inequality and believes that inequalities must be made visible and discussed in order to eliminate them.
Vanessa Lechner got her BA in English and American Studies and is currently studying Gender, Culture and Social Change in the master’s program with a minor in Film Studies at the University of Innsbruck.
Vanessa Roa Vergara is an international student born in Bogotá, Colombia, who did her BA in social communication and journalism in her native country. Currently studies Gender, Culture and Social Change at the University of Innsbruck. The topic of the post was inspired by her own experience as an international student at the university.
- Amoser, Marcel: Fragile Alliance – struggles of migration in Innsbruck in the 1974 “ÖAD-Protest”, in: Unpacking Migration, December 2020, https://unpacking-migration.eu/integration/#female_refugees.
- Zentrum für MigrantInnen in Tirol – ZeMiT: Multiversität. Internationale Studierende in Innsbruck – 1955 bis 1995, Dokumentationsarchiv Migration Tirol 2019, https://dam.tirol/projekte-ausstellungen/ausstellung-multiversitaet.
- Kyriaki Adaktylou was born in the Greek city of Drama. She came to Innsbruck in 1987 to study educational science at University of Innsbruck. After she graduated, she completed a training in systemic family therapy and worked for a long time in the field of social work.
- Interview Frau Kyriaki ADAKTYLOU, AT-ZEMIT-DAM Sammlung-4-4-4, 2018, Lines 288-292.
- Daniel Ndundua Dratele was born in Lodonga/Uganda and came to Innsbruck in 1987 within the framework of the international seminary at the Collegium Canisianum. After the escalation of conflicts in Uganda in 1980, Daniel Dratele and his family fled to Sudan. There he graduated from high school and studied philosophy. With an invitation from the Collegium Canisianum, he set off to study theology in Innsbruck.
- Interview Herr Daniel DRATELE NDUNDUA, AT-ZEMIT-DAM Sammlung-4-5-11, 2018, Lines 233-234.
- Zentrum für MigrantInnen in Tirol – ZeMiT: Multiversität. Internationale Studierende in Innsbruck – 1955 bis 1995, Dokumentationsarchiv Migration Tirol 2019, https://dam.tirol/projekte-ausstellungen/ausstellung-multiversitaet, Graphic: Regina Tschurtschenthaler.
- Interview Herr Daniel DRATELE NDUNDUA, AT-ZEMIT-DAM Sammlung-4-5-11, 2018, Lines 190-196.
- Interview Herr Daniel DRATELE NDUNDUA, AT-ZEMIT-DAM Sammlung-4-5-11, 2018.
- Adel El- Sayed was born in Egypt and studied Social Work in Alexandria. During his studies, he was involved in left-wing groups and was exposed to political persecution. He came to Innsbruck in 1981 where he studied Theology, first as an extraordinary and then as a regular student. Later he also studied Political Science and Spanish.
- Interview Herr Adel EL-SAYED, AT-ZEMIT-DAM Sammlung-4-13-9, 2018, Lines 279-286.
- Ali Rıza Yiğitbaşı was born in Şereflikoçhisar, Turkey, and came to Innsbruck in 1979, by this time his father already lived and worked in Austria. In 1980/81 Yiǧitbași began to study Business Studies at the University of Innsbruck. In 1985 he changed his subject to History and Political Science and in 1990 he started his doctorate.
- Interview Herr Ali Rıza YIĞITBAŞI, AT-ZEMIT-DAM Sammlung-4-9-3, 2018, Lines 20-27.
- Please read this blogpost to learn more about class as a category of inequality in academia.
- Zentrum für MigrantInnen in Tirol – ZeMiT: Multiversität. Internationale Studierende in Innsbruck – 1955 bis 1995, Dokumentationsarchiv Migration Tirol 2019, https://dam.tirol/projekte-ausstellungen/ausstellung-multiversitaet, Graphic: Regina Tschurtschenthaler
- Interview Herr Daniel DRATELE NDUNDUA, AT-ZEMIT-DAM Sammlung-4-5-11, 2018, Lines 312-314.
- Interview Herr Daniel DRATELE NDUNDUA, AT-ZEMIT-DAM Sammlung-4-5-11, 2018, Lines 343-346.
- Interview Herr Ali Rıza YIĞITBAŞI, AT-ZEMIT-DAM Sammlung-4-9-3, 2018, Lines 175-177.
- Tamás Meleghy was born in Budapest, Hungary. In 1956 he came to Germany with his family, where he attended high school. Meleghy studied Economics in Hamburg and then came to Innsbruck in 1972 where he got a doctorate in sociology. He worked at the Department of Sociology, first, as an assistant and then after his habilitation (‘second book’) as a professor until his retirement.
- Interview Herr Tamás MELEGHY, AT-ZEMIT-DAM Sammlung-4-16-2, 2018, Lines 124-128.
- Sıddık Unus was born in Örtülü (between Iran and Ararat) and came to Austria in 1977. In Innsbruck he studied Oriental Languages and Medicine.
- Interview Herr Sıddık UNUS, AT-ZEMIT-DAM Sammlung-4-10-12, 2018, Lines 435-437.
- Mostafa Rajaee was born in Teheran, Iran and came to Austria in 1970. He studied Architecture and founded several companies such as a taxi company and after he finished his studies he opened an architecture office.
- Interview Herr Mostafa RAJAEE, AT-ZEMIT-DAM Sammlung-4-15-3, 2018, Lines 402-403.
- Interview Frau Kyriaki ADAKTYLOU, AT-ZEMIT-DAM Sammlung-4-4-4, 2018.
- Kohlenberger, Judith/Herzog, Theresa/Schnitzler, Tobias: Migrant and refugee students from the Global South at Austrian universities: A typology for targeted support. ÖFSE Working Paper, 2022, p. 10.