Second-Tier Higher Education Institutions and the Diversity Challenge: Structural Components Adopted Through a Germanic Lens

Reference work entry
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


This contribution seeks to elaborate on second-tier higher education institutions (HEIs) in the context of Europe, and more precisely in the Germanic world, with the aim to identify differences and communalities to US-specific Community Colleges. By drawing on the specific example of the higher education system in Austria, an in-depth analysis of the historical development of the sector of universities of applied sciences (UAS) is provided. In addition, it is sought to outline the profile and mandate of this 23-year-old sector and to discuss why it seems particularly suitable for addressing issues such as lifelong learning, third mission, and the social dimension. Finally, a dynamic student lifecycle management is introduced that takes account of an increasing demand for a diversity-sensitive orientation of institutions of higher learning. It is argued that in view of the growing individualization and the rising heterogeneity of the student population, student lifecycle services have to allow for a variety of different paths to meet the needs of professionally qualified students, students with family commitments or differing demographic diversity challenges. In sum, second-tier institutions not only differ with regard to their selectivity, prestige, curriculum, and practical orientation, they are also believed to adopt different approaches towards diversity management. This is all the more relevant since they appear more likely to act as gate-openers for nontraditional students and allow for vertical expansion to previously excluded social groups. This, among others, is certainly a common denominator between community colleges and the European UAS sector.


Second-tier higher education institutions University of applied sciences Diversity Diversity management Nontraditional students HEAD wheel Austria Germany 


In view of societal, educational, organizational, and structural differences, a variety of labels have been used to describe educational institutions of higher learning that appear to have a number of objectives in common. For one, they were established as a counterbalance to traditional universities with both a different sociopolitical mission and educational mandate. As such they tend to be specifically geared towards the local industry with an eye on graduate employability and lifelong learning (LLL). Hence, curricula of second-tier HEI are frequently tailored in line with occupational needs with a strong commitment to keep pace with an ever-changing economic and social environment. Such a stance favors a multidimensional implementation of permeability procedures, so to say framework conditions that enable persons with vocational skills to take a degree at the tertiary level.

In view of changing demographics and a growing shortage of skilled workforce, second-tier HEIs have become increasingly aware of their responsibilities to act as an interface between professional and academic worlds. It is with this imperative in mind that second-tier HEIs appear to be more prepared to engage in what is called third mission activities that are performed by HEIs in relation to external environment (Glaser et al. 2014) with the aim to reach a sustainable regional and socioeconomic development (Sam and van der Sijde 2014). What is more, in the Anglophone world, so-called community colleges are frequently a lower-cost pathway that provides an alternative to university overflow. Such transformative institutions then appear to more and more assume a moral responsibility for social engagement which also translates in an increased intake of underserved students (Gaisch 2016).

Terminological Clarity

Due to the lack of a universally acknowledged umbrella term for all the institutional types that fall into the category of what Raby and Valeau (2014) call community colleges and their global counterparts, a European lens is adopted to shed some further light on their characteristics. In this contribution, these institutional types are referred to as second-tier higher education institutions for two reasons. First, due to the vagueness of the term community college and second in view of its being a rather North-American concept with distinct features such as being “an intricate institution offering pathways to credentials, degrees, and retaining opportunities for those with and without college credentials” (Mullin and Phillippe 2013, 4). It is certainly true that all those institutions have a unique mission, close ties to the local industry, and operate as engines for economic development. As such they appear to be a good alternative to traditional universities and – due to their regional focus and societal engagement – they attract more nontraditional students. Although community colleges offer an open admission policy with low tuition that is particularly suited for low-income and first-generation students, they are still fee-charging institutions, which is not the case in non-Anglophone Europe. While community colleges were already established in the 1960s, driven by postsecondary opportunities for a wide range of students within easy and geographic and financial reach (Baum et al. 2013, 31), not all of its European counterparts were founded around this time span. Although it is true that prior to 1960, most European higher education systems were university-dominated (Kyvik and Lepori 2010, 3), it was after all the UK that – most probably influenced by the USA – introduced the binary system in the mid-1960s.

At the same time, Germany and Austria started to open their higher education systems for previously underrepresented student populations. One rationale behind these reform plans was increasing awareness that higher and further education represents a relevant driver for the postwar economic growth and social welfare. It was hence in this spirit that traditional higher education has been gradually transformed from an elite-shaping phenomenon into a massification trend which should ensure the “transmission of skills and preparation for a broader range of technical and economic elite roles” (Trow 2007, 243). In this vein, HEIs (especially universities that have their roots in the Middle Ages) had to fundamentally overcome their pride of place and their exclusivity and excellence culture. Such a paradigm shift also caused a substantial transformation of the social function of higher education (Forest and Altbach 2007). In former times, traditional university education was predominantly focused on research and the discussion of major theories in basic subjects like theology, philosophy, law, and medicine. The recent phenomenon of massification of HE, however, challenged scholars to go beyond these fields and to also adopt “proper” didactical approaches to ensure adequate, enquired knowledge production and transformation. The driving forces behind such reform policies concerned aspects which addressed “equality of opportunity and employment opportunities for graduates” (Guri-Rosenblit et al. 2007, 2). So, when dealing with application questions, teachers and students started to further focus on “useful” research for the vocational fields and the society (Shin 2014). At the beginning of the 1990s, the New Public Management (NPM) approach evoked yet another fundamental system transformation process for European HEIs: in line with this NPM wave of competitive incentivization and disaggregation, taken up first by the UK, national-state politics in Europe decided to decouple universities from public steering and funding.

Hence, in the early 1990s increased institutional autonomy was given high priority to further improve efficiency and effectiveness of study programs. In doing so, a specific focus was placed on graduate employability and the overall performance of teaching and research. Further, attention was paid to the implementation of governance instruments that facilitated societal responsibility and accountability. This led to a substantial paradigm shift for both academics and administrative units within HEIs (especially with regard to the European traditional universities), even more so as from then the institutions were no longer seen as “steering objectives” which functioned as “sealed systems.” Rather, they had to stress the needs and demands of their “environment,” and in consequence, had to reinvent their self-organization management and corresponding processes (Broucker et al. 2015; de Boer et al. 2007). With respect to globalization, massification, and the NPM phenomenon, Teichler and Shin (2014, 86) identified another remarkable development in the Germanic world which dominated regional HE reforms at the beginning of the twenty-first century. They claim that in the 2000s, the majority of advanced higher education systems entered the stage of postmassification, meaning that most college-age students have been enrolled in some form of higher education. In their view “students are less academically prepared, but the amount of knowledge available to teach in the classroom is exploding. As a result, the gaps between student preparation and classroom content are becoming wider in many higher education systems.” In reaction to these developments, the higher education systems in Europe face major challenges to further improve both quality management systems and study program portfolios.

A significant step in this direction was the establishment of polytechnics based on mergers of specialized colleges. Due to national-state developments in the 1990s, higher education systems in Europe were aligned to these structural and systemic changes. At that time, a higher education alternative to universities appeared to be the appropriate answer for growing socioeconomic challenges. And although each European country responded differently to the emerging modifications of tertiary education, they all opted for some form of vocational, career-oriented, technological, and specialist program at certificate, diploma, and/or bachelor level with the responsibility towards the region or the small and medium enterprise (SME) sector (Hazelkorn and Moynihan 2010, 177). In other words, it was considered vital to support the educational needs of the local industry and its innovation climate through ongoing technology transfer.

In contrast to some early adopters, the majority of European countries, especially in Eastern and Central Europe, started to create dual or binary systems predominantly during the 1990s. This was also the case for Germany (or at least the former eastern part) and Austria that were confronted with a renewed wave of practice-oriented teaching. It was primarily local industry with their necessity for applied knowledge transfer that voiced the need for practice- and career-oriented institutions of higher learning.

When zooming out of Europe, it becomes apparent that a great variation in the types of second-tier higher education institutions exists across the globe. This variety translates in more than 50 different notions (e.g., universities of applied sciences, academic and vocational colleges, community colleges, polytechnics, technical colleges, colleges of further education or technical and further education, higher colleges of technology), all of which can also be referred to as the nonuniversity sector. Whatever label applied, there are still a number of factors that distinguish one institution from another, be it in terms of academic level, type and length of study, curricular design, or admission and tuition policy. What second-tier HEI have in common, though, is that they are said to be the key to success in the twenty-first century (Ma and Baum 2015). One of those success factors may lie in their strength to serve a highly diverse range of students, be it in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background. In doing so, they open the gates of higher education to previously underserved social populations and contribute substantially to vertical expansion. The notion of “second-tier” HEI was therefore also created to demonstrate the degree of selectivity, academic versus practical orientation, and level of prestige (Shavit et al. 2004; Arum et al 2007). Arguably, institutions that allow for vertical expansion tend to be regarded less prestigious than selective and top-tier universities since they provide access to previously excluded social groups. What further adds to the complexity is the lack of a commonly accepted definition of this term which makes its classification rather dynamic. A common denominator, however, can be found in their vocational focus and professional orientation, their more localized research scope, and their contribution to a more diversified student body. What appears to be much more controversial are the degrees that such institutions are allowed to award. In some European countries with explicit binary systems (such as Austria and Germany, Switzerland) efforts are made to spur the political debate about the prestige of such institutions. This is further reinforced by various institutional attempts to become entitled to award doctoral degrees. As for the case of Austria, these discussions are linked with claims for an excellence status that translates in high-quality performance both in teaching and research.

A Historical Development of the Austrian Sector of Universities of Applied Sciences

To further zoom in on Austria, it needs to be stated here that the binary system of higher education is a rather new phenomenon in this part of the German-speaking world. First and second-tier institutions obviously differ with regard to their selectivity, and it seems that the latter are better adjusted to act as gate-openers for nontraditional students and allow for vertical expansion to previously excluded social groups (Gaisch 2016). Hence, one of the reasons for setting up a new educational system was to guarantee enhanced graduate employability for a wider student population.

In line with these considerations, the 1990s marked a decisive change in the understanding of postsecondary or rather higher education in Austria. In secondary education, tier special school generally received an upgrade and were transformed into “non-university postsecondary education institutions” (Brünner and Königsberger 2013, 84). Based on an OECD study, the Austrian parliament decided to take a different path and to implement a completely new educational type, namely the Austrian universities of applied sciences (UAS) established in 1993. First, the UAS institutions were expected to serve as a role model for a governance system based on reduced state influence (19 of the 20 existing institutions are organized under private law). Second, they were considered to assume a pioneering role to integrate international accreditation and quality assurance standards in the Austrian tertiary sector (Pratt 2003, 127). In line with these challenging reform expectations, the UAS Studies Act (“FHStG”) was originally stipulated as a framework legislation with the aim to generate innovation in a new form of HE public-private-partnership governance system. Hence, the UAS sector was set up and expanded in cooperation with official top-down control (state, authority mandate) and private bottom-up initiatives. Furthermore, the Austrian UAS sector was created based on the idea of an intersectional competition – particularly with respect to quantitative growth (programs, funding) as compared to the traditional universities. Intentionally, the Austrian UAS institutions had much freedom and many possibilities for creating this “new” HE area. As a consequence, this legally conceded autonomy created a broad institutional diversity which resulted in many different internal governance structures, institutional profiles, quality management systems, and cofounder models. Despite this breadth, they were still geared under strict coherent regulations and standards of quality assurance and accreditation (Prisching 2013, 105).

In 1996, after 5 years of a highly dynamic development – the number of study programs tripled from 10 to 33 and the number of students increased with factor 5 to about 3,800. Due to the rapidly changing educational landscape, it became vital to bundle the interests of this newly emerging sector. This is why the Austrian UAS conference was established as an advocacy body for the previously stand-alone institutions. This step was seen as a significant consolidation with the aim of positioning the sector nationally and internationally with their new and intra-sectional competitive form. In the academic year 2015/16, the UAS sector comprises about 48,000 students enrolled in 251 Bachelor and 234 Master programs.

Like Austria and Germany, many other European countries have explicit binary higher education systems (such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, and Switzerland) that seek to strengthen the vocational dimension in tertiary education. Consequently, a wider diversification of student population is enabled, accompanied by geographic proximity to home, or (in the event of the UK) low tuition fees and open access policies.

Second-Tier Higher Education Institutions and Their Educational Mandate

Over the years, second-tier HEIs have become an integral part of tertiary education and in view of their vocational and professional orientation their educational mandate appears to be much in line with the third mission. Sustainable collaboration with local industries, applied research with and for the surrounded region, and societal engagement allows them to fulfill the tasks of the third mission regarding regional knowledge transfer via heads (Jaeger and Kopper 2014, 95). Thus, second-tier HEIs are a vital ingredient for the creation of a knowledgeable society and the sustainability of democratic processes for all citizens. The co-creation of social, environmental, and technical transformations aimed at sustainable regional development needs to be coupled with outreach measures that also target nontraditional students with a sharp eye on the reduction of vertical and horizontal segregation. Such a stance obviously results in a broader variety of students and hence meets expectations held in relation to an increased expansion of student diversity (Ayalon and Yogev 2006).

Similar to the concept of second-tier HEIs, the notion of nontraditional students (NTS) is a rather fluid term with unclear definitions and a wide range of variations. In the Anglophone world, it mostly comprises age, multiple roles, modes of study, gap in studies, commuter status, admission pathways, and student biographies that are different from the norm (Chung et al. 2014). In other words, NTS refer to an underrepresented student body whose educational participation is constrained by a number of structural factors. In the German-speaking world, nontraditional students have predominantly been associated with professionally qualified students without a high school degree that enter university via the third educational pathway. This rather narrow definition seems to increasingly open up to incorporate a broader range of heterogeneous target groups. This change towards an open university (Hanft and Brinkmann 2013) has resulted in a paradigm shift for teaching and learning that needs to meet the emerging requirements of a nontraditional student population. In this context, it becomes clear that previously ingrained processes have become obsolete and a change in awareness has to take place across all levels; such a change then preferably goes hand in hand with accompanying measures, be they a diversification of student programs, a creation of flexible learning paths, or enhanced vertical and horizontal permeability possibilities. A wider access to university allows students to take on an academic career and to receive specialized vocational qualifications that are grounded in applied research. Additionally, second-tier HEIs have introduced special information and service systems to support individual biographies and career developments of the students and to intensify their willingness for mobility activities (e.g., internships or further studies abroad). These measures are in line with the Bologna process, which was conceived in order to harmonize the European Higher Education landscape, its systems and institutions and with regard on the so-called social dimension which was a certain strategic item of the Yerevan communiqué to “provide the competences and skills required for European citizenship, innovation and employment” (Yerevan Communique 2015, 2).

The Need for a Holistic Diversity Management

Arguably, a more diverse student population is most likely to require a different form of student lifecycle; one that is more dynamic and capable of addressing the challenges that come with stratification, massification, and diversification. In the following Fig. 1, a holistic diversity management instrument is introduced that operates under the name of Higher Education Awareness for Diversity (HEAD) Wheel (Gaisch and Aichinger 2016a).
Fig. 1

HEAD wheel (Source: Gaisch and Aichinger 2016b)

Based on scientific findings, the HEAD Wheel (short for Higher Education Awareness for Diversity) was designed to serve as a frame of reference for a holistic diversity management that embraces five interconnected diversity segments (demographic, cognitive, disciplinary, functional, and institutional diversity). In framing this complex matter along the lines of a wheel, it is sought to visualize all diversity aspects that are relevant for higher education institutions (HEI) and, in doing so, shed a holistic light on diversity management and its incorporated measures. In other words, it operates as a comprehensive framework for a wide range of action that can be incorporated along the lines of a dynamic student lifecycle (Aichinger and Gaisch 2016). Exemplified by the UAS Upper Austria, measures are taken to attract nontraditional students which are regularly monitored through the composition of the student body. But it also was designed to strengthen students’ ability to engage in self-regulated and self-reflected learning. Hence, the current monitoring of student success rates, employers’ satisfaction surveys, and the analysis of graduate’s career paths are important indicators for the suitability of the student lifecycle measures. In this sense, it seeks to combine specific tertiary service systems with a diversity-driven system logic. On these grounds, diversity management serves as a cross-sectional theme that is closely linked to quality management, human resources management, teaching, and learning, as well as the internationalization agenda. At the same time, it also involves issues such as organizational learning, systemic improvement, and the third mission. This strategic focus on regional economic and social development has been spurring the scholarly debate in Europe over recent years (Roessler et al. 2015; Pinheiro et al. 2015; Pausits 2015).

In the following, the five segments of the HEAD Wheel will be briefly outlined. In general, demographic diversity refers to mostly stable and group-forming categories such as age, gender, sexual orientation, physical and psychological disabilities, ethnicity and race, and religion and belief. In the spirit of a permeable university policy, one additional aspect, namely social mobility, was taken into account when conceiving this model. Consequently, major emphasis is placed on diversification and individualization of teaching and learning activities. Additionally, heightened awareness is given to issues such as accessibility, advising services, as well as differing educational biographies. Given that most of the social groups that fall into the segment of demographic diversity are legally protected against discrimination, it is to be expected that structural barriers and discriminatory mechanisms will get gradually removed and diversity and equal opportunities will make their way into the heart of HEI.

The second segment depicted in the HEAD Wheel is the one of cognitive diversity that is a diversity lens that looks at differences as a resource. From an economic point of view, this perspective is fruitful in view of its profit-oriented and results-driven approach that ensures access to previously underrepresented markets. Looking at it from a business case angle, differing knowledge and value structures shall be exploited to obtain better results and a higher level of innovation. When approaching cognitive diversity from a tertiary level, we feel it needs to be enriched by educational and ethical aspects where skills development and competence orientation take center stage. In the interests of promoting learning from and with one another, it is sought to achieve more creative and innovative solutions. Such a learning orientation then draws on differing cognitive styles, perceptual processes, and problem-solving strategies.

Disciplinary diversity as the third segment of the HEAD Wheel refers to targeted cooperation between different professional groups on the one hand, and to transdisciplinary border crossing on the other hand with the aim to generate heterogeneous knowledge through dialogical competence. Here again it is to be expected that the exchange of disciplinary expertise and perspectives results in increased creativity and a higher degree of innovation. In the context of higher education, it may lead to more excellence through interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. It may also result in a higher degree of graduate employability, especially in view of the current scholarly debate about I- versus T-shaped knowledge bases (Chydenius and Gaisch 2016; Bajada and Trayler 2013). While I-shaped professionals are expected to have extensive expertise in one specific field, T-shaped graduates also cover a good breadth of generalist knowledge and interdisciplinary understanding. Undoubtedly, in an increasingly interconnected world it becomes more and more vital to “synthesise the seemingly divergent into a cohesive whole” (Gaisch 2014, 74) and to develop creative competencies beyond rigid disciplinary boundaries.

Functional diversity places a systemic-internal focus on organizational learning through a dialogic process of communicative competence. By this we mean the capacity to look at topics and tasks from a variety of different angles and to engage in fruitful mutual exchange that is valuable for both the individual and collective learning curve. Cross-functionalities, or differently put, the diversity based on functional backgrounds, become increasingly decisive when skills development and learning orientation of mixed teams are foregrounded and a higher level of efficiency is strived for. For the purpose of mutual exchange of experience and expertise, collective learning processes are stimulated and enhanced through cross-fertilization. In doing so, the shortcomings of a one-sided view and hardened perspective can be overcome and more transparent and participatory organizational processes have the potential to enhance both communication structures and the institutional culture. Functional diversity helps to avoid a tunnel vision and promotes think outside the box approaches.

Institutional diversity as the fifth diversity segment points to the advantage of interorganizational diversity that strives for a systemic externally oriented societal orientation. While companies are predominantly driven by an economic strategic approach when interacting with each other, universities may also be interested in promoting mutual exchanges of experience for the sake of a societal contribution. In this sense, collective learning together with increased effectivity of the targeted measures is a potential driver behind a commonly pursued social goal. Inherent to such cooperations may well be the exchange of good and bad practice examples and continuous enhancement of personal and collective knowledge.

In sum, the HEAD Wheel as a whole can be understood as a form of constructivist diversity mainstreaming that seeks to address all paradigms of diversity management – from fairness to access over the business case to learning and effectiveness. As such, it has the potential to promote social sustainability – as defined by the third mission mandate for sustainable transformation that institutions of higher learning should engage in. In addition, it may also serve as a reference for the development of a diversity management strategy since it allows for a SMART (Doran 1981) approach. The five criteria – specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and time-related – help to define clear objectives and together with the visualized complexity reduction of the HEAD Wheel, diversity management may become less abstract and easier to grasp.

The Need for a Dynamic Student Lifecycle and a More Diversified Student Population

In light of recent developments triggered by the EU Bologna process (especially by the last ministerial conference in Yerevan/Armenia in 2015) HEIs were encouraged to extend their quality improvement agenda and place a special focus on the so-called social dimension. In this line, it was decided to further enhance teaching and learning, especially by the creation of student-centered pedagogical innovations and digital technologies. Such a lens not only encourages HEIs to offer better balanced study programs which allow students to be (part-time) employed and/or to manage family business, it also points to the requirements of a more and more diversified population (be it in terms of ethnic, linguistic, or cultural diversity). With respect to these challenges, European HEIs have to further improve their quality and service orientation, their information/consulting structures, and they are also expected to design more customized study offers for a demographically and cognitively diversified student body.

When taking a closer look at study programs offered at Austrian universities of applied sciences, it becomes evident that, traditionally, they were conceived as practice-oriented, science-based, and time-limited (six semesters for the Bachelor degree, two to four semesters for the Master degree). In view of this focus, they represented a significant competition compared to the “traditional” university system. Not only were the courses attractive for students who had to earn their own living, they also increasingly attracted returners, interested in further higher education to facilitate career advancement to middle or top-management positions. A further strength of this education system can be found in the personalized administrative structure of study courses. Small team structures can offer personal/individual advice for students at almost any time. In such individualized settings, both administrative staff and teachers serve as mentors and/or coaches for the students. Such a service-oriented culture was possible due to a basically implemented, system-inherent customer relationship management.

Governance and Theoretical Aspects of Quality and Diversity Management

Although the Austrian university of applied sciences sector is nearly ten times smaller than the established university sector (Oravm 2013), individual institutions have reached a critical size to further professionalize their administrative and IT-supported processes. A professionalization has become crucial to allow for an effective handling of interfaces for the organization of studies and quality management systems alike. Since 2012, the latest amendment of the Austrian Studies Act (FHStG) and the organizational merger of all HE sectors in terms of quality management by the introduction of a new legislation, called HE Quality Assurance Law , the HEIs have become obliged to develop and perform an individual quality management system. With respect to the previously discussed aspects, modern quality management systems need to be elaborated as holistic frameworks and include structural, procedural, and diversity-connoted dimensions. On the basis of these organizational conditions, some HEIs created IT-based student data systems (warehouses and clouds) as to manage individual needs and to operationalize input-output and outcome quality loop measurement (Miller 2007; Pircher and Pausits 2001) but also implemented certain IT-based learning systems (Broadbent and Poon 2015; Newman and Scurry 2015). In this vein, the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria defined a student lifecycle management (SLM), which encompasses all knowledge management aspects (data, information, and learning/knowledge) and meets the demands of performance management in higher education (Dougherty and Natow 2015; Veiderpass and McKelvey 2016). Besides these “practical” dimensions, the SLM framework was also established based on organizational research, especially stakeholder and strategic management theories (Mitchell et al. 1997; Porter 1980), on reflections of process-structured organization systems and on the service and customer relationship function of HEIs (Donabedian 1980; Pausits 2006, 2007; Sursock 2011). This approach was chosen because these theories refer to in-depth forms of dialogue settings between HEIs and their stakeholders (predominantly students) and maintain the development of strategies and concrete measures to meet identified demands (Benneworth et al. 2015; Jongbloed et al. 2007). The constant work on relationship-building enables academics, administrative staff, and students to converge in terms of cognitive and disciplinary diversity, to develop a culture of mutual understanding, and to co-create an innovative and learning-oriented working and living atmosphere (Lester 2015; Lowe and Gayle 2007). These settings have a dynamic und fluent character – they aim at the development of a long-term relationship structure and at the creation of procedures as to identify change requirements: “By systemizing this relationship, transparency, clarity and understanding is gained, enabling the education provider to offer customer-oriented responses and services” (Pausits 2007, 31).

Against the backdrop of this managerial professionalization and HE service processing, a dynamic student lifecycle has the potential to structure the organization of studies into specific process steps and to define individualized support, information, and service activities for each stage. The SLM framework was also built on results of a British research study, which shows that professionalization of study organization management can be divided into five steps: (1) step one is called “raising aspirations” and addresses all action taken to stimulate public interest (e.g., children of all ages, persons that look for further education). At this stage, HEIs need to provide adequate offers for potential students and societal needs in general (give public lectures, provide open house days, target-specific information, and special workshops). All these activities should go hand in hand with a state-of-the-art marketing strategy. (2) The second phase is referred to as “better preparation” and encompasses comprehensive information for (future) students, “helping people make informed study choices […]; minimising barriers to attending university or college. Such measures may include the provision of financial aid, the design of flexible courses or the offer of online modules for professionally qualified students. This phase seeks to support students in ways so that they can achieve their full potential and obtain, or improve, the skills that employers demand.” (3) The third stage of service level focuses on the sound integration of first-year students in the study organization by drawing on a well-conceived process that ensures a smooth entrance in the relevant degree program. Such regulatory measures need to take account of the special and individual needs of the students and may embrace remedial teaching, open courses, modular design of study sections and (online/e-/blended learning) or open courses. (4) A crucial student lifecycle management stage is the phase of “moving through” the study – which includes action to guide and support the students towards a successful graduation. To further facilitate this process, Hanft and Brinkmann (2013) defined a number of support measures which emphasize the modularization of study courses, the possibilities to structure the individual learning process and improved learner-teacher-relationship on the basis of appreciation. Consequently, HEIs have to think of fresh didactic concepts that place students in the center of interest with teachers as mentors, learning process supporters, and learning guides, who support the students to acquire adequate professional and social skills (see p. 114). A big challenge of this phase is the complexity and the size of HEIs – they need adequate resourcing and planning and a good organizational process management. (5) The last step of the SLM is the implementation of processes, which facilitate “student success” such as outcome-oriented examination methods or the provision of honest and constructive feedback (without the risk of sanctions). Finally, due to the demands of the Bologna process as to implement a permeable HE system, certain processes and standards for the recognition of former qualifications or study abroad academic achievements are required. In the event of a professional SLM system, Hanft (2014) therefore points to the need for the establishment of service providing units at HEIs, while at the same time highlighting the challenge of balancing individual expectations and organizational logics (p. 115).


This contribution sought to provide a clearer picture of the role of second-tier higher education institutions in Europe and how they have the potential to meet the challenges of an increasingly diverse student body. In doing so, they may be well positioned to fulfill the so-called third mission of the tertiary education, namely to act as co-creators for sustainable regional development.

Further, the need for a holistic diversity management along the lines of the HEAD Wheel was discussed. In framing the importance of taking a more differentiated look at diversity segments at the tertiary level it is hoped to further contribute to the scholarly debate.

On a more practical note, the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria has sought to put these theoretical concepts into practice by combining a dynamic student lifecycle management with all five segments of the HEAD Wheel. As a result of this endeavor, enhanced cooperation and interdisciplinary and coherent interaction was activated between the organizational units of higher education research and development, quality management, diversity management, and human resources and their respective measures in organizational development. Cognitive, disciplinary, and functional diversity allows for think outside-the-box approaches that create a structural, organizational, and individual interplay (governance-system) which could be described as a social and cultural safety net. Many different measures and initiatives were established along the five phases of the student lifecycle which were brought together in a corporate document (Fh-ooe 2016). It is therefore believed that this strategically responsible approach has the potential to result in a more interlaced and diversity-sensitive thinking and acting, be it in terms of study organization, research orientation, and underlying administrative processes. Moreover, these initiatives are also seen to be beneficial for stakeholders outside of the university system, since the societal obligations of higher education are fulfilled and diversity is understood as a valuable resource for teaching, learning, and research as well as social welfare. After 1 year of its implementation, the institutional reporting system will evaluate the outcomes and medium-term planning with regard to its impact measures.


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Applied Sciences Upper AustriaLinz, WelsAustria

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