picture of the TU Dortmund campus and buildings at sunrise
© TU Dortmund

Inclusion and Diversity in Erasmus+

Equitable mobilities – as demonstrated by TU Dortmund University
Article last updated on 09.05.2023
Reading time: 16 min.

The new generation of Erasmus+ programmes in Germany has led to an increase in the number of people who are eligible for special financial support for the purpose of spending time abroad. This present universities with new tasks and challenges, but also new opportunities. 

What does this mean for their everyday work? What steps and measures need to be taken to reach target groups? What issues need to be considered? We look for ideas and inspiration at TU Dortmund University.

Good news

«It is and always will be exciting. And I’m saying this after 20 years with the International Office and as many years working with Erasmus,» says Silke Viol with a smile as she welcomes us into her office on the second floor of the Central Student Advisory Service building at TU Dortmund University’s North Campus on this Tuesday morning. The Erasmus+ Institutional Coordinator and Deputy Director of International Office tells us she has just been speaking to her colleague Laura Hope, who is responsible, among other things, for advising students about study abroad options. «This year, we have reached the highest level of mobilities since we first participated in the programme in 1987. In the area of student mobility for study and traineeships abroad, we can report a steady annual increase.»

Increased attractiveness – a means and an end

What are the reasons for the success, we want to know. Silke Viol, herself a first-generation student who went abroad during her studies, is quick to answer. Over the years, she says, robust information and advisory structures have been developed within the International Office, but also at the TU as a whole. These are a prerequisite for the provision of excellent support services for outgoing and incoming students at all levels. 

«We understood early on that we had to take good care of incoming exchange students to be able to create attractive tuition fee-free exchange places for Dortmund students at our partner universities,» Viol explains. «As a university in Germany’s industrial Ruhr region, we have to make a special effort to be attractive for incoming students, because other, larger cities are often better known abroad.» At the same time, many of the students come from non-academic families, which often means they have to work during their studies, she adds. «So this makes tuition-free education extremely important for our students to be able to study abroad.»

Influences and effects of role models on the other side of the Atlantic

One important stimulus for this service-based approach came from TU Dortmund University’s USA Program, she adds by way of explanation. «The students we’re dealing with here pay thousands of dollars in tuition fees at their home university to be able to spend one semester in Dortmund. These students have certain expectations. And we really wanted to meet these expectations because these incoming students simultaneously can help us generate attractive – in other words, tuition-free – exchange places for Dortmund students. We have incorporated this service-based approach, the consideration of individual needs, into the Erasmus+ programme.»

Comprehensive support for students with disabilities

We set off together to visit one of the institutions with which International Office cooperates closely: the Division of Disability and Studies at the Center for Higher Education. Better known under the acronym «DoBuS», the department dates back to the late 1970s, and has been a permanent advisory centre since 2001. DoBuS offers counselling and support specifically to Dortmund students and teaching staff who have disabilities or chronic illnesses, also when they are planning to spend time abroad. Its work includes identifying additional needs and estimating costs for applications for actual cost grants in the context of Erasmus+. But DoBuS also offers other services. Together with the university library, it converts study materials, exams and textbooks into accessible formats for visually impaired students or, if required, creates subtitles for educational videos for students with hearing impairments.

Director of DoBuS since 2019 is Dr Carsten Bender, who holds a PhD in rehabilitation science. As Silke Viol tells us on the way to his office, he too is a former Erasmus student. «Carsten Bender was one of the first students I personally advised on special funding for people with disabilities in 2006. He spent a semester in Joensuu in Eastern Finland the same year. By that point, his vision was getting steadily worse. Today, he is blind – and he runs a central institution in our university. For me, this is a true Erasmus success story.»

DoBuS is located just a few minutes’ walk across Campus North, which was built in the 1970s as part of the green expansion of what was then known as the University of Dortmund. This is where most of the faculties, the Central Library and the university canteen are based. Particularly noticeable everywhere are installations to guarantee structural accessibility – ramps for wheelchair users and guidance systems for the visually impaired. These are the visible parts of a comprehensive accessibility system that includes university teaching, digitalisation and administrative processes as well as social and economic aspects. TU Dortmund University prides itself in being a «university for all».

First-hand assessments

Dr Carsten Bender himself has exceptionally positive memories of Erasmus. He makes this clear when we ask him about his experiences. He received a lot of support in Dortmund – from International Office and DoBuS – but also in Joensuu, for example, when he was looking for student accommodation or needed technical aids, he explains. Basically, adds Carsten Bender, his period abroad was only possible thanks to the additional funding. «It was only because of this that I had a coach who gave me mobility training in the city and at the university. And it was thanks to this funding that I had a study assistant during my time in Finland.»

And what did he gain from his time abroad, we want to know. «I definitely came back with a lot more self-confidence,» stresses Bender. «I was more confident in my own abilities, and felt ready to take on new challenges, despite being so visually impaired and eventually becoming blind.» This is why he wholeheartedly recommends taking the step and going abroad, not least of all because the support opportunities offered by Erasmus have become even better since he took part in the programme. One of the things he mentions in this regard is the possibility to apply for a support grant based on actual costs incurred. He says it opens up new opportunities that students should definitely take advantage of.

A visually impaired man with a cane steps out of a building of the TU Dortmund; he uses the tactile guidance system on the floor, which is available in many places of the TU, for orientation.
© Eric Lichtenscheidt/NA DAAD

A tactile guidance system helps students find their way between buildings. It is an essential part of TU Dortmund University’s award-winning concept for the inclusion of young people with disabilities, impairments or chronic illnesses.

What else should be done?

Finally, we want to know whether there is room for improvement and whether, from Carsten Bender’s perspective, certain services still need to be developed. Yes, he says, especially for people with non-visible disabilities. For example, how can we make international mobilities possible for people with anxiety disorders or depression? How can they be supported? He says we need to create entitlements and look for flexible solutions. Their needs are simply different to those of students with motor, visual or auditory impairments.

Students with children

«The Parents’ Café has probably just closed,» says Silke Viol, after we have said goodbye to Carsten Bender. «Let’s go and see Jeannette Kratz. She’s been responsible for the area of ‹family-friendly university› in the Staff Unit Equal Opportunity, Family and Diversity for many years. Jeanette Kratz is an important partner for International Office. Most importantly, she can tell you about the challenges students with children face, both generally and in terms of international mobility. She can give you an assessment of the new funding opportunities for this previously less mobile target group.» 

The picture shows a striking red building that houses the International Meeting Center (IBZ) of the TU Dortmund University; it is directly adjacent to the building of the Central Student Advisory Service.
© cleevesmedia

TU Dortmund University’s International Meeting Centre (IBZ) is located right next to the headquarters of the Central Student Advisory Service. The striking red building is used by all university faculties for international events.

A challenge for society as a whole

We meet Jeannette Kratz in the room where the Parents’ Café has just taken place. The café offers parents the opportunity to meet in a relaxed environment once a month and, for example, swap ideas on balancing family life, studies, research and work. We are particularly interested to hear what she has to say about the new actual cost grant for students with children and top-up allowances for students from non-academic families*. All this is important and relevant, she says. Maybe students with one or more children will even be able to go abroad with Erasmus+, either to study or for an internship. She says she will definitely continue to offer support. 

«Unfortunately, only a few of our students with children have considered the possibility of spending time abroad,» she adds. The general situation for these students is often not easy. If they also come from non-academic backgrounds or lack financial support from their family, for example, going abroad doesn’t even enter their minds. «They see studying abroad as a luxury.»

More information and improved cooperation

What would have to happen for this to change? Conditions for students with parenting responsibilities generally need to improve in Germany, she explains. It would also be useful if more comprehensive information about possible host universities were available, in a more easily accessible, low-threshold way. Is there accommodation for students with children? What childcare facilities are available near the accommodation or campus? How much do they cost and how do you get a place? What about Family Service Offices at host universities? Do they exist and could they provide information and support? These are a few key questions.

In this regard, Jeannette Kratz would like to see support from other sources, because universities cannot collect all this information on their own. A Europe-wide network of all stakeholders, including Family Service Offices at universities, like the network Familie in der Hochschule e.V. in German-speaking countries, would be useful here. The platform InclusiveMobility.eu, where universities can provide information about their advisory and support services, could also be expanded to include this subject area, as suggested by NA DAAD. Anything else? Perhaps it would be beneficial to actively reach out to students with their own families about spending a semester abroad, since they usually lack time, are on a tight budget and therefore study in a very focused way. «Networking within the university – something we’re currently working on in Dortmund – is really important in this context because students are encouraged to study abroad even if they have children.»

How do we reach target groups? And how big are they?

After a few minutes, we’re back in Silke Viol’s office. We return to the challenges currently faced by Erasmus+ in Dortmund, especially in terms of inclusion and diversity. «The structures for one-on-one support exist. They take effect when there are concrete cases of students, graduates and teaching staff needing special support,» explains Silke Viol. «The new forms of financial support also give us greater scope for action. But the question is: How can we reach the relevant target groups more effectively – here in Dortmund, for example, students from non-academic backgrounds or students who have to work – if we want to offer higher grants not just to students who want go abroad anyway?»

Advisory services are manifold and extensive, she says. They range from consultations – arranged individually or taking place during office hours, in person or online – to emails, information events, downloadable recordings of such events and videos on specific topics, such as studying abroad or periods abroad for student teachers of English. Laura Hope, whom Silke Viol had met just before our arrival, says videos are especially popular. They have also noticeably reduced the need for one-one-one consultations. But the fact is, admits Silke Viol, «we don’t know exactly how big potential target groups are. TU Dortmund University doesn’t document how many students with disabilities, chronic illnesses or parenting responsibilities are enrolled. Nor does it know how many students work part-time or come from non-academic families. We’re like all German universities in that respect, or at least most of them.»

A new initiative for more cooperation

However, this doesn’t mean nothing is happening. On the contrary, adds Silke Viol. «We want to more effectively target these groups and one other group which tends to be reluctant about mobility – student teachers. This is why International Office has joined forces with DoBuS, the Equal Opportunity, Family and Diversity unit, talent scouts and the project Dortmund Profile for Inclusion-Oriented Teacher Education at TU Dortmund University to look for solutions and at the same time raise awareness about study abroad opportunities in the relevant institutions.» 

The first kick-off meeting in a larger group took place in October 2022 and showed that new networks within and outside the university must continue to be created. Only in this way can information ultimately reach the right students, graduates and university staff, and thus really increase mobility. 

The picture shows Silke Viol, the deputy head of the International Affairs Department at TU Dortmund University and Erasmus+ university coordinator.
Silke Viol 
© Eric Lichtenscheidt/NA DAAD

An appeal

One immediate problem that significantly impacts the perception, success and future of Erasmus+ remains: the funding sum for the 2022 call falls short of the requested per capita study and work placement mobilities. Due to the way the programme is organised in Dortmund, there are not enough funds for all the students who have already been guaranteed a place. This is where the long-standing Erasmus+ Institutional Coordinator would like to see action, so that the universities’ efforts to increase mobility generally and, in particular, for people with fewer opportunities can bear fruit. «After all, what’s the point of financial top-ups if the number of subsidised months is reduced and, in the long term, a competition for mobility subsidies has to be introduced?»

Silke Viol clearly cares deeply about her subject. For all the difficulties that exist, she concludes: «I can only repeat myself: Erasmus+ is and will continue to be exciting. Offering lots of young people the chance to go abroad, especially people who have to overcome obstacles … is a wonderful and rewarding experience.»

I can only repeat myself: Erasmus+ is and will continue to be exciting.
Silke Viol
Silke Viol
TU Dortmund University

The perspective of an incoming student

Picture of Sebastian Diaz Darias at his laptop at a bar table in the foyer of a TU building.
© Eric Lichtenscheidt/NA DAAD
It’s really important to be well organised. I work early in the morning when things are quiet, then I go to university.
Sebastian Diaz Darias

Sebastian Diaz Darias is studying in Madrid, but is spending the 2022/2023 academic year with Erasmus+ at TU Dortmund University. In Madrid, he finances his studies by working for about 30 hours a week, and he can continue to do this remotely in Dortmund. His Erasmus+ grant is €260. No further support was offered to him for the study abroad period by his home university.

You’re continuing to work while you’re studying at TU Dortmund University. How do you manage to balance work and study?

It’s really important to be well organised. I work early in the morning when things are quiet, then I go to university. It helps that my employer is really flexible. And Germany’s «academic quarter-hour» [difference between the defined and actual starting time of lectures] always give me some extra leeway.

What do you think of the financial top-up that’s paid to working students in Germany so that they can go abroad with Erasmus+?

I think it’s an amazing idea to reward and encourage well-organised, hard-working students who have a clear goal. In my opinion, it’s a good way to use funds, and other countries could learn from it. It’s also important that businesses support students, like in my case, otherwise it obviously wouldn’t work.

«Just do it!» – Life as a visually-impaired student in Athens

Max Grote spent the summer semester of 2019 in Athens. He is visually impaired, but this didn’t stop him from deciding to study in a different country. Here’s what he has to say to students who might be hesitant about going abroad because of their disability: «Just do it!»

Portrait of student Max Grote, who is blind
Max Grote 
© privat

What made you decide to spend a semester abroad?

A semester abroad is a compulsory part of my study programme. So there was no additional hurdle. I already knew I wanted to spend time abroad during my studies.

Students with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses relatively rarely spend time in other countries. How would you encourage these students to go abroad despite their limitations?

There’s so much to learn, experience and discover that no barrier can outweigh this. A lot of things are possible, even if you think they’ll be difficult. Besides, there are challenges everywhere, even in your own country, and there are always plenty of people around who are happy to help. And then there’s the DoBuS team who are on hand to offer support and advice. It’s all very well organised. 

At the university in Athens, I was assigned two «buddies»: a sighted student on my course, who was able to answer lots of my questions, and a student who was studying something else but is visually impaired like me, so she could help me with more specific matters.

Spending time abroad as a first-generation academic

Mano-Raphael Barragan Penaranda studied in Madrid in the winter semester 2021/2022. 

Picture shows student Mano-Raphael Barragan Penaranda in front of the entrance area of a TU Dortmund building.
© Eric Lichtenscheidt/NA DAAD

You decided to go abroad with Erasmus+ before funding for students from non-academic backgrounds was extended in 2022. Was it a difficult decision?

The decision itself wasn’t difficult. I’d heard so many positive stories from lots of different people who all encouraged me to take part in the programme. But actually organising it was a challenge. There were lots of things I was unsure about. Thanks to some great advice and lots of support, especially from home, everything worked out fine though!

What would you say were the biggest hurdles? What support would you like to have had?

There are lots of hurdles, and they can be different for everyone. One thing everyone worries about is finding accommodation. That’s a real struggle! It would definitely have been useful to have had some kind of guidance on searching for accommodation. Something else many students worry about is not being able to make friends. Connecting with other students before going away would be really helpful.

One thing everyone worries about is finding accommodation.
Mano-Raphael Barragan Penaranda

In what way do you think Erasmus+ could do more to help students from non-academic backgrounds study abroad?

Above all, by making it clear to students that the programme and visits abroad generally are something for everyone. Students’ reservations about applying is an issue that needs to be tackled. Once you’re part of the process, you soon realise you can get support with lots of things. More information about how to apply successfully is also very important.

Talent-scouting: the search for first-generation academics

Dr Heidrun Olsen is Head of the Central Student Advisory Service (ZSB) at TU Dortmund University. In addition to the areas of General Academic Advice, Psychological Student Counselling and Student Information, the ZSB also offers talent-scouting services.

«The talent-scouting service targets first-generation academics. It also deals with possible hurdles associated with spending time abroad. Alongside organisation and funding, encouragement is a key issue. The ‹role models report› format is especially important in this context because students don’t always immediately grasp the benefits of spending time abroad – especially for their personal development – and the hurdles seem insurmountable. Continuous support is also vital.

Erasmus+ grants are a very good funding option alongside other scholarships. The advantage is that they can be combined with the BAföG and Deutschlandstipendium grants. The additional top-up for first-generation academics is a welcome development. It’s a good argument to mention when addressing students and it reduces financial worries.»

Financial top-up for working students

Marleen Döppner is currently doing an Erasmus+ work placement for her Master’s degree with the city of Vienna.

How crucial is the special funding for your period abroad?

I had to give up my student job for my internship abroad. This internship is unpaid too, so the additional support is a great way of making the semester abroad possible. It covers my basic monthly expenses (rent, train tickets, etc.).

What does the Erasmus+ visit mean for you and your studies?

When you spend time abroad, you develop not just academically, but also culturally and personally. The semester abroad is also a unique opportunity to meet people from different cultural backgrounds and develop a relationship to Europe as a whole. 

What do you appreciate about the special funding? Are any improvements needed?

Many Erasmus students aren’t actually aware that this additional funding exists. That’s why it’s so important that this opportunity is communicated and publicised more broadly so that many more students can spend a semester abroad.

The group picture shows (from left) Jeannette Kratz from the Family Service of the Equal Opportunity, Family and Diversity Unit, Dr. Carsten Bender, the Head of the Disability and Studies Unit (DoBuS), Laura Hope from the International Affairs Unit, and Silke Viol, the Deputy Head of the International Affairs Unit of the TU Dortmund University and Erasmus+ University Coordinator.
© Eric Lichtenscheidt/NA DAAD


TU Dortmund University offers a comprehensive range of advisory services to students interested in mobilities abroad, for example with Erasmus+, in which various bodies are involved. The network includes International Office, Erasmus+ faculty coordinators and various other university institutions, such as the Division of Disability and Studies at the Center for Higher Education, the Staff Unit Equal Opportunity, Family and Diversity and Dortmund Student Services. It was joined in the autumn of 2022 by the Dortmund Profile for Inclusive Teacher Training, which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) as part of the federal and state governments’ joint campaign to enhance teacher training.

From left: Jeannette Kratz develops and implements policies to promote a family-friendly university in the Family Service of the Staff Unit Equal Opportunity, Family and Diversity. 

Dr Carsten Bender is in charge of the Division of Disability and Studies (DoBuS). Visually impaired from birth, he studied in Finland in 2006 with an Erasmus grant. 

Laura Hope is responsible, among other things, for advising students about periods abroad and organising relevant information events in International Office. 

Silke Viol is Deputy Head of International Office at TU Dortmund University and Erasmus+ Institutional Coordinator.