FH Upper AustriaUniversity of Applied Sciences

Scientific background

The HEAD Wheel of the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria

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 visualise 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 at the tertiary level. 

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 with an eye on a non-traditional student body, was taken into account. Consequently, major emphasis was placed on diversification, individualisation of teaching and learning activities, heightened awareness for issues such as accessibility and barrier-free studies as well as differing educational biographies.

Most of these social groups are legally protected against discrimination which not only leads to a removal of structural barriers and discriminatory mechanisms but also promotes diversity and equal opportunities amongst 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. Differing knowledge and value structures shall be exploited to obtain better results. When looking at cognitive diversity from a tertiary level, it is to be enriched by educational and ethical aspects where skills development and competence orientation take centre stage. In the interests of promoting learning from and with one another by drawing on differing cognitive styles and perceptual processes, it is sought to achieve more creative and innovative solutions.

Disciplinary diversity as the third segment of the HEAD Wheel refers to concrete and 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. The exchange of disciplinary expertise and perspectives results in increased creativity and a higher degree of innovation. In the context of higher education, it also leads to more excellence through interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. 

Functional diversity places a systemic-internal focus on organisational learning through dialogic 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-fertilisation. In doing so, a tunnel vision shall be avoided and a think outside the box approach shall be promoted.

Institutional diversity as the fifth diversity segment points to the advantage of inter-organisational 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 also promote mutual exchanges of experience for the sake of a societal contribution. Hence, collective learning together with increased effectivity of the targeted measures takes centre stage when a common social goal is pursued.

The HEAD Wheel as a whole can be understood as a constructivist diversity mainstreaming that seeks to address all paradigms of diversity management in a holistic manner and as such promotes social sustainability - as defined by the third mission mandate for sustainable transformation that institutions of higher learning should engage in.