‘Invisible’ university revives dissident academic model

Many online courses and exchange projects have been set up with students and academics in Ukraine since the Russian assault began in February. But the Central European University (CEU) in Vienna has set up a new type of programme known as the Invisible University for Ukraine with an eye on preparing Ukrainian students for a future beyond the current war.

The project draws on the underground and exile ‘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 alongside students’ own university programmes at a time when those countries were in transition towards democracy at the end of the Cold War.

The idea was to expose students to alternative views that were still not easy to access within their own country and to prepare a generation – one that had not experienced open or democratic societies – for an era in which they would be playing a role in setting up and supporting new democratic institutions.

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

Reclaiming a dissident tradition

“We launched [under] this name is to pay tribute to this dissident tradition. We are trying to globalise it and reclaim it,” said Balázs Trencsényi, professor of history at CEU, and one of the main organisers of the Invisible University for Ukraine.

“It is an alternative education model that can take care of the obvious problems that many societies are facing, and create another level of internationalisation of education that is not just for elites who can afford study abroad schemes,” said Trencsényi.

The aim, like the invisible universities of the 1990s, is to use a transnational approach to broaden horizons for those students, undergraduate and postgraduate, unable to leave Ukraine for any kind of study abroad experience that might be possible in normal times.

With the exception of some institutions in Lviv in western Ukraine, and Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, Ukrainian students’ access to international academia is limited. While many Western institutions offer online courses, these are usually a single topic course offered by teachers of that topic.

According to feedback from students, the Invisible University was “life-changing”, Trencsényi said.

“They had this feeling of complete depletion, especially in the beginning of the war. They did not know why they should get up – especially the ones whose educational systems were shrinking. Either it was non-existent, or they only had some online courses that were very far from what they were interested in.”

CEU Rector Shalini Randeria told University World News the Invisible University for Ukraine was set up within three weeks of the outbreak of the war.

“The question was: How can we support students with some kind of continuing education?” she said. “Most of them were in the midst of university courses which were disrupted. For many of them who were in cellars during the bombardment, this was the only two to four hours where, on their phones, they were able to have some semblance of normality,” she noted.

Co-taught courses and mentoring

The Invisible University was conceived as a set of courses, each one co-taught by a professor at CEU and a colleague in a Ukrainian university.

“We felt we could give them courses for which they could earn credits and if they choose to come to CEU at any time, we could certainly transfer [those credits]. But since all the courses were co-taught with Ukrainian colleagues, the course credits could also be used in Ukrainian universities once teaching resumed,” Randeria said.

The Invisible University enrolled 129 Ukrainian students last semester and over 200 students this semester. They were taught courses virtually in history, political science, law and sociology for a semester, but with additional mentoring and complementary courses in English writing, curriculum development and soft skills.

“The classes were very much connected to what happens around them,” said Trencsényi. “When the weapons embargo question came up, or the confiscation of Russian property, we invited somebody from European institutions who could give real-time feedback about how European institutions are thinking about these issues. So, it became very much connected to the Ukrainian students’ lives.

“It was very demanding to organise because we have to react all the time to what’s going on. But I think that made this offer quite unique for the students.

“Every class is a bit unpredictable. We say it’s like jazz music as there is always an element of improvisation, but it also creates a completely different pedagogical experience for the students – they are not getting a master narrative or prefabricated idea imposed on them from different perspectives, Western or local. What they get is this multiplicity of perspectives,” said Trencsényi.

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

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

Summer school

Some students were able to meet at a CEU summer school in Budapest in July, with other students able to join online from Lviv, for what Trencsényi described as more “robust interaction”.

Parallel online sessions were also transmitted from Budapest, where Trencsényi is still based, commuting to CEU in Vienna after the university was forced out of Hungary by the Viktor Orbán government.

The summer school and other onsite programmes were “obviously very risky and we did not make it an obligation. Some of the organisers also travelled to Ukraine and met the students in March-April so there could be more interaction,” Trencsényi said.

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

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

“We have to cater nominally for one country, but in reality, [we cater for] very different student communities and different experiences also involving both the institutions, and also the diaspora students and diaspora teachers,” Trencsényi explained, as not every university in Ukraine has been affected in the same way.

Some universities in the war zone became completely inoperative, while others have been able to keep up online education but are unable to continue offline courses. Still others in western Ukraine are functional, with normal classes – 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 may be international, not just national”, said Trencsényi.

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

It will also prepare professors in Ukraine to have more exposure to the outside world, and some kind of international experience which, according to Trencsényi, should not be limited to those who fled the country, but include “those staying who might feel abandoned”.

“There are many people who are still running the system on the ground in Ukraine, and for them, it’s also extremely important to create this kind of international framework that they can rely on when they want to change something in their own educational system and not just rely on money being poured in after the war.”

Trencsényi pointed to the experiences of Hungary and Eastern and Central Europe during the transition to European Union membership, where simply pouring in money could actually corrupt the system.

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

Drawing on its experience in Ukraine, CEU is looking to start a pilot project in the West Balkans and is discussing an ‘invisible university’ with an institution in Belgrade, Serbia. Talks are also ongoing with Turkey and Central Asia where, Trencsényi notes, the narrowing of academic perspectives has meant students and scholars could benefit from internationally minded views and courses.