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Spies in a Viennese whirl

Teacher-trainers worried about coming under the beady eye of inspectors should spare a thought for lecturers in Vienna.

From this summer, Austrian government spies disguised as students will be among those carefully taking notes in the university lecture halls of the city in which Graham Greene based his Cold War thriller, The Third Man.

The minister responsible for education, Dr Caspar Einem, who is briefing the clandestine inspectors to check up on the quality of lectures and teaching, denies that they are spying. He said: "They are observers, who for money pretend that they are students."

But Dr Einem is facing a storm of protest from the teaching profession and opposition politicians. Head of the country's young conservatives, Werner Amon, said: "It's just like the methods that were used by the East German secret police."

Head of the Association of Austrian Rectors, Peter Skalicy, thought it was a joke at first. "It's dreadful! There isn't anything like this abroad," he said.

Such intelligence operations will not translate so easily to the UK, however, where clandestine inspectors might be caught out by wearing the wrong pop group's slogans on their T-shirts. In Austria, however, it is not unusual for students to spend more than 10 years pursuing their magister degree (roughly equivalent to a combination of a British first and master's degree), so clandestine inspectors would be less conspicuous in the lecture theatre.

Dr Einem says his inspectors will be looking out for the likes of professors whose lectures consist of reading passages from books they wrote 20 years ago. But a university professor, who asked not to be named, said: "Under the Austrian constitution I have a right to teach whatever and however I see fit. And if I decide that my genetics students would benefit from a lecture on Byzantine art, that's what I will give them."

Whether the inspectors will be effective is another matter. Dr Einem lost his job as interior minister last year after the failure of intelligence operations against terrorists.

Nigel Glass

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