Building diversity in staff: Migrants as professionals in Austrian adult education

Annette Sprung
University of Graz




 – This article explores the degree to which the increasing migration-related diversity of societies is also reflected in the composition of the staff employed in adult education. Selected results of a study that was carried out in Austria show barriers and favourable conditions for migrants when it comes to access to this professional field. The potential of origins and migration as cultural capital when seeking qualified employment in adult education is also discussed. The results of the study point to exclusion mechanisms being applied by institutions, and reveal the potential for a policy of intercultural opening, as well as of anti-discrimination activities.

“When we speak of diversity and ­migration in adult education, we think first of all – and frequently only – of the diversity (or indeed inequality) of the learners.”

Migration processes change societies permanently. This is true in many parts of the world. Adult education is called upon to play a major role in this context. It is intended, firstly, to help people who have immigrated to become what is referred to as “integrated”, for instance in terms of language, work or culture. Secondly, it takes on a democracy-promoting task when it comes to developing a peaceful way of tackling social change, such as by potentially addressing all citizens with offers that are critical of racism. 

When we speak of diversity and migration in adult education, we think first of all – and frequently only – of the diversity (or indeed inequality) of the learners. Programmes and methods are consequently developed which take into account the heterogeneity of the participants and aim to prevent marginalisation. I would like to change the perspective in this article and look at migration-related diversity of the staff in adult education. In doing so, I build on the idea that increasing heterogeneity among addressees in migration societies requires not only specific services to be offered, and to some degree new skills on the part of the teachers. We also need reforms at all levels within the organisation in order to be able to provide appropriate frameworks for new social challenges. Concepts developed for this, in particular in Europe and North America, are referred to by buzzwords such as “intercultural opening” (Griese, Marburger 2012), “managing diversity” (Göhlich et al. 2012) or “anti-discrimination” (Gomolla 2012). They are implemented in both the social and the education systems, as well as in public administration or in private industry. Even if these methods each pursue different foci, they nonetheless all view the field of personnel development as a central area in which society’s diversity is to be reflected. 

No representative statistical data are however available yet on the number of staff with migration biographies, for instance in adult education in Austria or Germany. Explorative studies and expert opinions suggest that migrants remain very much underrepresented (Kukovetz, Sadjed & Sprung 2014: 64 et seq.). The questions to ask are: the degree to which people with migration biographies find it more difficult to gain access to qualified employment in adult education, and how any obstacles might be overcome. 

I would like to explore this question by presenting in this article selected results of a study that was carried out in Austria from 2012 to 2014 (“Experts with migration background in adult education”). We analysed what barriers as well as favourable conditions migrants face when seeking access to jobs in adult education. We then went on to illustrate the strategies employed by stakeholders in shaping their careers. We surveyed both migrants and individuals whose parents had immigrated and who themselves grew up in Austria (the “second generation”). We orientated our analysis towards specific professional groups within adult education: educational specialists in training, teaching and counselling, and managerial staff in educational institutions. The study included a quantitative questionnaire (1,056 questionnaires) and 34 qualitative interviews. We also used three case studies to analyse how selected educational institutions address the phenomenon of migration and diversity. These “classical” research methods were supplemented by holding expert workshops and by implementing a participative research workshop. 

Promoting diversity? Between social justice and profit maximisation

The call for more staff with a migration background in adult education may have a variety of reasons, as is made clear by two typical positions within the spectrum: Initial access may be described with the buzzwords representation and social justice. In a nutshell, the view is put forward here that immigrants form part of the host society, and hence must be enabled to participate equally in all areas of society and in professional fields. Consequently, adult education also needs to consider how to avoid any exclusions and to guarantee fair access for all potential staff members. For instance, concepts for anti-discrimination and equality play a central role in this context.

“I would like to warn against generalising and collectively attributing specific skills or characteristics.”

A second approach focuses more closely on resource-orientated consideration in conjunction with diversity. Diversity management concepts thus aim to recognise diversity characteristics as potential and to make it possible to use them for the business objectives. This would mean for adult education that linguistic, cultural and general migration-related diversity among the staff is also to be understood as being helpful for addressing migration-related tasks – such as recruiting new target groups, amongst other things. I will come back to what that means in concrete terms. Immigrants’ descendants are frequently also multilingual and have migration-specific knowledge because relevant experience was shared within the family, or the children assume the role of a mediator between their parents and the host society from their infancy. This naturally does not however mean that everyone who has a migration biography necessarily has such resources. I would therefore like at this juncture to warn against generalising and collectively attributing specific skills or characteristics.

© Nhung Le

Many institutional strategies comprise both anti-discriminational goals and a profit-related concept, something which Emmerich & Hormel (2013) describe as “equity vs. business”. The weighting of these two goals may admittedly differ very widely. The debate on institutional discrimination is still in its infancy in the German-speaking area, unlike for instance in the United Kingdom (Gomolla 2012). That said, a real hype in diversity programmes can be observed. There is a need to adjudge in individual cases to what degree active anti-discrimination or diversity management activities are actually being engaged in, or indeed whether the institutions are merely taking up a rhetoric which promotes their image. 

As a matter of principle, a dilemma is always associated with the demand for the recognition of migration-specific skills, and critical migration research has indicated this in detail (Mecheril et al. 2010): The recognition of “special” skills, in turn, reproduces categories and attributions of migrants’ alleged “differentness”. Conversely, potentials resulting from origin (e.g. knowledge of language) or specific experiences should also be suitably recognised as cultural capital (Sprung 2011). This is of particular importance when it comes to specific groups of migrants, who are frequently referred to in the public debate as having shortcomings or as causing alleged “integration problems”. 

Selected results of the study

I would like to cast some light in the next section on selected results of our empirical study, and to reveal potential barriers and favourable factors when it comes to gaining access to the professional area of adult education.

Social capital and legal marginalisation

A lack of social capital has been identified as a major barrier to training and employment in adult education. Contacts and networks appear to be particularly significant in connection with persons in relevant positions within the education system (Sadjed et al. 2014: 145 et seq.). Our interviewees frequently built up this capital as they themselves participated in training. Some players were for instance encouraged and actively supported by their former language course leaders in applying for jobs in adult education. In some cases, individuals were recruited directly from courses which they had attended for qualified employment in the same educational institution. Once they had taken up their work in adult education, targeted promotion and encouragement were then provided by supe-riors or colleagues (for instance in the shape of mentoring), which made a major contribution towards career development. As a rule, people who did not immigrate until they were adults had less social capital than those who had already been able to establish the appropriate contacts, for instance during an extended educational career in Austria.

Further barriers stem from the legal frameworks, such as when it comes to residence arrangements or the recognition of educational qualifications from their countries of -origin. It was noted, all in all, that the respondents in Austria were highly active when it came to further training. They -attempted to obtain certificates in the host country in order to be able to compensate to some degree for the lack of recognition of their previous qualifications. 

Racism, language

A variety of experiences of racism (frequently subtle in nature) constituted a further obstacle to gaining a career foothold. The respondents for instance considered disparaging looks or whisperings on the part of participants as a nuisance. They furthermore generally mentioned the feeling of being observed particularly critically, or even with mistrust, by -colleagues and superiors because of their origin. Not last, the demand that they have a “perfect” command of German made it difficult for them to gain access to the professional field although the specialists all had a very good knowledge of the language. The respondent institutions also stipulated “perfect German” as a sine qua non and as a particularly important criterion for recruiting migrants. This demand, which was frequently put forward as an absolute matter of course, can however certainly be queried as it cannot be materially justified in many cases, or frequently also does not appear to be clearly defined. Or to put it another way, depending on the area of activity, different skills may well be more important than error-free grammar. The maxim of demanding a “perfect” mastery of the language constitutes a form of marginalisation which devalues particular linguistic practices and places them at a disadvantage (Mecheril et al. 2010: 99 et seq.). There is a need here, for instance, for institutions to differentiate more clearly as to what language skills apply as a precondition for employment in specific areas. It is ultimately a matter of a situation-appropriate ability to commu-nicate, and the fact of migrants being multilingual can moreover perhaps be regarded as a particular bonus in this regard. Ultimately, the staff should also be systematically given opportunities to catch up on their German language skills after taking up employment, or assistance for specific requirements (such as in drawing up written products). 

Even if the obstacles are greater in most instances for migrants who themselves have immigrated, members of the so called “second generation” nonetheless also experienced discrimination. This took place in those cases in which a “migration background” was ascribed to them because of their appearance or name. We hence saw a tendency among those who grew up in Austria to hide their migration biography or their parents’ origin. This circumstance can also be interpreted as resistance against relevant processes of categorisation and labelling. The permanent ascribing of an alleged differentness, referred to as “othering” (Bhabha 1994), not least, also implicitly places a permanent question mark over their belonging to society (Mecheril et al. 2010).

Potential offered by migration biographies

Our study clearly indicated that a migration biography may lead to certain disadvantages when it comes to gaining a foothold in the professional field of adult education. However, we also conversely analysed the degree to which the experts make active use of their migration experience as a resource in order to get on in their professions. Migration-related cultural capital can also potentially be put to use for adult education for a variety of reasons: Speaking several languages is highly valuable where there are attendees from a variety of different countries of origin. However, a profound understanding of the circumstances and needs of learners from comparable circumstances may also be regarded as an advantage. Many interviewees reported of an empowerment effect that they frequently observed among attendees where a migration background acted as a binding element. Knowledge of the systems in the countries of origin, or a better understanding of attendees’ learning biographies, also help ensure successful educational interaction.

The specialists themselves adopted a variety of approaches towards their migration-related resources. They were able to express these most frequently and naturally in institutions which are specialised in offering integration to immigrants. Such institutions were frequently the first contact with the professional field, and in some cases served as a springboard for their future careers. The specialists, by contrast, very frequently did not contribute their skills related to migration and to their origins in institutions that were not specialised in integration until they were deliberately called on to do so. It was mostly individuals or superiors who encouraged them. Having said that, these are individual initiatives, and in most instances are not embedded in a corresponding institutional strategy as to how to approach diversity and discrimination (Sadjed et. al 2014: 104 et seqq.).

The professionals themselves present the situation somewhat ambivalently. Making active use of their migration-specific capital entails, on the one hand, the risk of discrimination and stereotypical attributions. On the other hand, this capital may also be applied as particular skills which help promote a person’s career. In the final analysis, however, it is the institutions which define what specific skills are demanded and -acknowledged. The specialists therefore showed flexible, predominantly reactive, prudent conduct in order to explore whether they should take their migration biographies to market, or whether it would be better to leave them out of the equation. Another risk that was described was for expertise in migration-related issues to lead to the specialists being reduced to associated fields of activity. This leads to other skills frequently not being acknowledged and responsibility for all the institution’s integration or diversity agendas being delegated to these individuals. 

Releasing the potential

Against the background of processes of social change, adult education is called upon to not only develop its concepts and services, but also to reflect critically on its own self-perception, or indeed possible exclusion mechanisms (Kukovetz, Sprung 2014). This also applies to the phenomenon of growing societal diversity. This article particularly focussed on migration-
related challenges, but these are doubtlessly also linked with further intersectional aspects. Increasing awareness of heterogeneity aspects is reflected in a variety of approaches such as diversity management, intercultural opening or the reduction of institutional racism. Staff development in educational institutions is a relevant level of action here. The increased inclusion of people with migration bio-graphies in qualified employment in adult education can be justified in terms of theory of justice and with a view to relevant potentials for working in the context of a migration society. Potential resources resulting from a migration experience or from an individual’s origins should hence be appropriately recognised and developed. At the same time, there is a need to avoid specific characteristics or abilities being universally ascribed to migrants or reducing players to their migration biographies. 

The research project which has been introduced in this article was closely networked in each phase with players from the practical fields. Roughly 100 representatives from adult education in Austria took part in the participative discussion process in several groups subsequent to the study. This enabled “Guidelines for adult education in a migration society” to be developed.1 These Guidelines are understood as providing momentum for discussion and as an aid for educational organisations wishing to actively take up the challenges of a migration society. 


1 / The Guidelines can be downloaded (in German) at


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About the author

Prof. Dr. Annette Sprung has been active in social work, adult education and research. Her current work at the University of Graz focuses on adult education in migration societies, racism, diversity and social inequality. She is an active member of several scientific networks, including the ESREA Network on Migration, Transnationalism and Racism.


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