Promoting Diversity und Inclusion

Erasmus+ − a strategic instrument at Schmalkalden University of Applied Sciences
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According to its mission statement, Schmalkalden University of Applied Sciences (HSM) is a «university of diversity and equal opportunities». And in this, Erasmus+ plays an important role. With the help of the European Union’s education programme, the university of applied sciences in the federal state of Thuringia not only promotes international mobility, it also fosters a diverse, open and inclusive university culture. 

The importance of Erasmus+

«We see the diversity of students and teaching and administrative staff as a valuable resource that should be utilised,» explains Professor Uwe Hettler, Vice President Studies and International Relations. «Erasmus+ is an instrument that allows us to actively shape actions on several levels and in different directions. On the one hand, it enables us to integrate people from different countries into our University. And on the other, we can make participation possible for people with special needs.»

«This is exemplified by the grant for people with fewer opportunities,» adds Gloria Elena Valencia Hincapie from the Office for Studies and International Affairs. «It gives students with disabilities, chronic illnesses or parental responsibilities and – since the start of the current Erasmus+ programme in 2021 – students who work or come from non-academic backgrounds access to special funding.» Valencia admits that for a long time, the relevant staff at HSM were not really aware of the special requirements of this latter target group. 

Image of a red brick building at Schmalkalden University of Applied Sciences.
© René Kretzler/ BY-SA 3.0

Schmalkalden University of Applied Sciences has existed in its current form since 1991, making it one of Germany’s younger universities. Teaching and research activities focus on the STEM subjects. In the winter semester 2022/2023, 2,564 students, including 1,077 international students, were enrolled at HSM.

The «traditional» Erasmus+ programme (KA131) plays an important role for both incoming and outgoing activities. However, for a number of years, the funding programme with third countries (KA171) has been another strategic focus of HSM. Target countries include Tunisia, Azerbaijan, South Africa, Australia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo and Ukraine.

Concerted action

To be able to strategically use Erasmus+ to promote diversity and inclusion at HSM, a carefully devised concept and coordinated implementation were required. The basis for this was a comprehensive analysis of the University’s needs and capabilities, explains Valencia. In an initial step, targeted surveys and dozens of individual interviews were conducted to determine students’ needs, notably in terms of barriers to mobility and assistance requirements.

Responsibilities also had to be delineated in order to ensure that all relevant stakeholders are connected. The mobility coordinator, for example, is in charge of measures promoting diversity and inclusion within the international mobility programmes, while the Family Office plays a key role in supporting individuals who are studying under special circumstances, including students with children.

The picture left shows a Muslim student with a headscarf, sunglasses and a cloth bag from Schmalkalden University of Applied Sciences. The picture right shows a blonde student from Ukraine.
© privat

Diversity is seen as a valuable resource at Schmalkalden University of Applied Sciences, as reflected by its international students and staff – including Diana Dorda from Ukraine (right) and Nesrine Zlima from Tunisia (left)

The actions in detail

The project has been in place since the start of the new programme generation and is being carried out in different stages. First and foremost, students have to be reached. HSM is relying on a mix of online and analogue offers for its targeted outreach work. The University website and, above all, social media play an important role here, but workshops and information events offered every semester should also be mentioned. They include a university-wide information event about outgoing activities, which places a focus on additional funding for people with fewer opportunities.

HSM has simultaneously developed actions specifically designed to strengthen students’ intercultural skills. The e-learning programme «Gender Diversity Competence», for example, raises their awareness of gender-, age- and culture-related inequalities and, by looking at practical examples from everyday life, increases their understanding and sensitivity to diversity and inclusion. Furthermore, all incoming and future outgoing students have the opportunity to take part in intercultural training courses every semester.

A process in progress

«Our experience so far has been extremely positive on both an individual and an institutional level,» concludes HMS Mobility Coordinator, Kevin Rausch. «Over a third of our scholarship holders now fall into the category of students with ‹fewer opportunities›. We’re glad we can now give these people the chance to go abroad too, something that might not have been possible before.» And this also has a positive impact for HSM as a whole, he says. The systematic promotion of diversity and inclusion helps create a diverse and inclusive university culture.

Rausch believes that clear communication, personalised support and respectful and open interaction are key in this respect. By cooperating closely, the Diversity Officer, the Equal Opportunities Officer, the Mobility Coordinator and the Family Office help ensure that students’ needs are broadly identified and addressed.

For the success story to continue, Uwe Hettler acknowledges that sustained commitment and close cooperation between all stakeholders is necessary. The prerequisites for this are certainly in place. The quality assurance system at the institutionally accredited HSM evaluates actions on an ongoing basis and adapts these to changing requirements.

Dr Frauke Stebner
EU02 – Learning Mobility of Individuals
Marcus Klein