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The “invisible” university revives the dissident academic model



Numerous online courses and exchange projects have been set up with students and scholars in Ukraine since the start of the Russian assault in February. But the Central European University (CEU) in Vienna has set up a new type of program known as the Invisible University for Ukraine with the aim of preparing Ukrainian students for a future beyond the current war.

The project is inspired by the clandestine and exiled “invisible colleges” of the early 1990s launched by former dissident intellectuals in Budapest, Hungary and elsewhere in central Europe. These provided an alternative educational structure to university programs for students at a time when these countries were transitioning to democracy at the end of the Cold War.

The idea was to expose students to alternative visions still difficult to access in their own country and to prepare a generation – which has not experienced open or democratic societies – for a time when they would play a role in the establishment and support of new democratic institutions.

The invisible colleges disappeared in the early 2000s when Central and Eastern European countries joined the European Union and the NATO alliance.

Reclaiming a dissident tradition

” We launched [under] this name is to pay homage to this dissident tradition. We are trying to globalize it and take it back,” said Balász Trancsényi, professor of history at CEU and one of the main organizers of the Invisible University for Ukraine.

“This is an alternative education model that can solve the obvious problems that many societies face and create another level of internationalization of education that is not reserved for elites who can afford study abroad programs,” said Trancsényi.

The goal, like the Invisible Universities of the 1990s, is to use a transnational approach to broaden the horizons of students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, unable to leave Ukraine for any kind of life experience. studies abroad that might be possible in normal times.

With the exception of some institutions in Lviv, western Ukraine, and Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, access for Ukrainian students to international universities is limited. While many Western institutions offer online courses, it is usually a single subject course offered by teachers of that subject.

According to student feedback, the Invisible University has been “life changing”, Trancsényi said.

“They had this feeling of complete exhaustion, especially at the start of the war. They didn’t know why they had to stand up – especially those with shrinking education systems. Either it was non-existent or they only had a few online courses far removed from what interested them.

CEU Rector Shalini Randeria said Academia News the Invisible University for Ukraine was established within three weeks of the outbreak of war.

“The question was: how can we support the students with some sort of continuing education?” she says. “Most of them were in the middle of university classes that were interrupted. For many of them who were in the basements during the bombardment, those were the two to four hours when on their phones they were able to have some semblance of normalcy,” she noted.

Courses in co-teaching and mentoring

The Invisible University was designed as a set of courses, each co-taught by a CEU professor and a colleague from a Ukrainian university.

“We thought we could give them classes that they could earn credit for and if they choose to come to CEU at any time, we could definitely transfer [those credits]. But since all courses were co-taught with Ukrainian colleagues, course credits could also be used at Ukrainian universities once teaching resumes,” Randeria said.

Invisible University enrolled 129 students from Ukraine last semester and more than 200 students this semester. They took virtual classes in history, political science, law, and sociology for one semester, but with additional mentorship and complementary classes in English writing, curriculum development, and soft skills.

“The courses were very much connected to what is happening around them,” Trancsényi said. “When the issue of the arms embargo was raised or the confiscation of Russian assets, we invited someone from the European institutions who could give real-time feedback on how the European institutions view these issues. Thus, he became very connected with the life of Ukrainian students.

“It was very demanding to organize because we have to react all the time to what is happening. But I think that made this offer quite unique for students.

“Each class is a bit unpredictable. We say it’s like jazz because there’s always an element of improvisation, but it also creates a completely different educational experience for the students – they don’t get a master narrative or a pre-made idea forced upon them from from different perspectives, Western or local. What they get is this multiplicity of perspectives,” Trancsényi said.

Heritage, which is part of the national identity, is also an important aspect of the program. This involves not only history but also other disciplines, from sociology to the environment and urban planning.

“It’s absolutely a hot topic for students, partly because of the destruction of their heritage,” Trancsényi said. Migration and social transformation in the context of war was another important course, he said.

Summer schools

Some students were able to meet in summer schools organized at the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, in a relatively quiet part of western Ukraine close to the Polish border, and other working groups in face to face for what Trancsényi described as more “robust”. interaction”.

Parallel online sessions were also transmitted from Budapest, where Trancsényi is still based, traveling to CEU in Vienna after the university was expelled from Hungary by Viktor Orbán’s government.

Summer schools and other on-site programs were “obviously very risky and we didn’t make it a requirement. Some of the organizers also traveled to Ukraine and met with the students in March-April so there could be more interaction,” Trancsényi said.

The goal was also to create more social opportunities for students who were in the same place or could get there. A winter school is now scheduled for January.

Students are in small groups, supervised mainly by PhD students from the CEU, but also scholars from the Ukrainian diaspora and PhDs from their home institution, as well as mentors from other Western institutions.

“In theory, we have to meet the needs of a country, but in reality, [we cater for] very different student communities and different experiences involving both institutions, but also students and teachers from the diaspora,” Trancsényi explained, as not all Ukrainian universities were affected in the same way.

Some universities in the war zone have become completely inoperative, while others have been able to maintain education online but are unable to continue classes offline. Still others in western Ukraine are functional, with normal classrooms – as long as they have electricity.

Preparation for post-war Ukraine

The Invisible University for Ukraine prepares students for “a post-war situation where there will be reconstruction and engagement that can be international, not just national,” Trancsényi said.

A key objective is to strengthen the links of Ukrainian universities and their scholars and students with transnational networks, which can also counter the effects of brain drain by offering an alternative that does not depend on the current location of students.

It will also prepare Ukrainian teachers to be more exposed to the outside world and to a kind of international experience which, according to Trancsényi, should not be limited to those who have fled the country, but include “those who remain and who might feel abandoned”.

“There are a lot of people who still manage the system on the ground in Ukraine, and for them it is also extremely important to create this type of international framework that they can rely on when they want to change something in their own system. educational and not just rely on the money paid after the war.

Trancsényi referred to the experiences of Hungary and Central and Eastern Europe in the transition to European Union membership, where the simple act of pouring in money could actually corrupt the system.

The Invisible University of Ukraine is supported by the Open Society University Network and others such as the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Building on its experience in Ukraine, CEU is looking to start a pilot project in the Western Balkans and is discussing an “invisible university” with an institution in Belgrade, Serbia. Talks are also underway with Turkey and Central Asia where, Trancsényi notes, narrowing academic prospects have allowed students and scholars to benefit from internationally-minded views and courses.