From 1962 onwards the OeAD has disbursed state scholarships to foreign students. This was the birth of today's regional offices in the federal provinces (called branch offices until 2009). Currently there are seven offices located in the university cities and towns of Graz, Innsbruck, Klagenfurt, Leoben, Linz, Salzburg and Vienna. Between 1989 and 1994 there was also an International Academic Centre (IAC) in Vienna, which was responsible for the disbursement of scholarships, counselling and support of academics. As of 1995 these tasks were taken over by the Regional Office Vienna. The OeAD’s structure of having regional offices throughout Austria has proven itself over the years and continues to set us apart from comparable organisations in Austria and abroad. Since the establishment of the regional offices the higher education landscape has changed very much. We are therefore currently in the process of revising the orientation of the regional offices and adapting them to the new circumstances (e.g. support for scholarship holders at locations without a regional office, online counselling, digitisation of documents and work processes, increasing complexity of processes).
The regional offices’ most important task is to provide personal advice and support to scholarship holders from all over the world. The regional offices are the first point of contact for matters relating to the scholarship and the stay. The regional offices’ tasks include, among other things, the disbursement of scholarships and other benefits to incoming students and researchers, the accounting of projects, taking out insurance on behalf of scholarship holders and assistance in dealing with bureaucratic challenges at the host institutions and with authorities. The colleagues at the regional offices are also available in case of personal concerns.
A very topical issue at present, for example, is the law relating to aliens. With the help of our legal department we provide scholarship holders with advice and assistance. Until the foundation of OeAD Student Housing in 1998 our tasks also included booking places in student halls of residence and assistance in finding accommodation for families; in the federal provinces this is still done in some cases. Scholarship holders from some programmes (e.g. with Rwanda or Pakistan) used to be picked up personally from the airport. However, this service no longer exists today as we do not have enough resources for it. Nevertheless, service orientation is still a central concern for us: “The OeAD sees itself as a full service provider for its clients and customers.” This quality policy principle is put into practice in the Regional Offices every day.
Our scholarship holders come from all over the world. Their stays are financed by the Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research (BMBWF), the Austrian Development Agency (ADA) or by third-party funds (e.g. IST Austria, University of Klagenfurt, HEC Pakistan). The duration of scholarships varies depending on the scholarship programmes – some scholarship holders stay only for a few days, others, for example, complete their entire doctoral studies in Austria. Funding is provided for study or research stays, participation in excursions or summer schools, and collaboration in research projects.
Besides the administrative “core business” an essential part of our work is providing advice and support for our scholarship holders. Social programmes are organised to help them get to know each other and get in touch with each other. And to give them a better understanding of their host country and inspire a love for Austria in them day trips, city tours, visits to museums or excursions take place. The annual Christmas party – currently unfortunately only online – has already become a tradition. Students and researchers from abroad still remember the excursions and joint events decades later. In their function as “ambassadors of the OeAD” (as we were once called in a speech) the staff of the regional offices contribute to the fact that our scholarship holders not only do not forget their stay in Austria but keep it in fond memory. They subsequently spread the word about their positive experiences with the OeAD and their experiences in Austria throughout the world. One example of this fondness for Austria speaks for itself: a scholarship holder from New Zealand named her daughter “Vienna” in memory of her stay in Austria.
Last year, due to the Corona pandemic, we were forced to change our entire workflow, which is very much based on face-to-face support, almost completely to online mode. Nevertheless, even during the lockdown it was necessary to offer our scholarship holders the possibility to come to the regional offices to collect their scholarship cheques, for initial talks and problem solving while observing all security precautions. This was greatly appreciated, especially in this emotionally challenging situation – for some this was often the only personal contact they had during this difficult time.
Digitisation took hold in the early 1990s when the first computer was “assembled” in the branch office Vienna. The data was still managed with Dbase, then later with Oracle, until we were finally able to change to a web-based programme in 2007. This programme enables the scholarship holders to manage their personal data themselves and to upload documents and reports. In the early days the money was still disbursed in cash. Then the first cheques came (which, to the surprise of some, are still in use because it is still the fastest way for our scholarship holders, especially those from third countries, to get their money without expenses or additional costs).
It was an exciting time when it first became possible to disburse scholarships or project funds by bank transfer: A disc with the transfer data was taken to the bank in a sealed bag. There the data was imported and the money was transferred to the recipients’ bank accounts. The next step was that the disbursement data was transmitted to the bank by modem. However, this was a challenge on some days: one or two trams too many passing by our office (e.g. in the former general hospital building in Vienna) could interrupt the connection to the bank. Since electronic banking has been in place everything works much smoother and faster: the disbursements are created in the scholarship management system and released to the accounting department for transfer at the push of a button.
We, the Regional Offices, wish to join in congratulating the OeAD on its anniversary and we hope that we can celebrate many more anniversaries together. Over the years we have proven time and again that even in challenging times we have managed to complete the tasks assigned to us in an uncomplicated, flexible, and quick way and to everyone's satisfaction. We are ready to continue to support the OeAD with our long-standing experience and expertise in the implementation of new projects.
Authors: Martina Rahberger and Lydia Skarits
For more information about the regional offices please see https://oead.at/en/to-austria/regional-offices