The Invisible University for Ukraine (Part 2): comparative study

The Invisible University for Ukraine (IUFU) is now accepting applications for its third semester, starting in spring 2023. The IUFU was launched by the Central European University (Budapest Campus) in April 2022 for Ukrainian undergraduate and graduate students whose studies were affected by the war, whether they still reside in Ukraine or are refugees. This non-degree, certificate program provides an education program in a hybrid format (online teaching and on-site summer/winter universities) with three components: thematic lecture courses in humanities and social sciences, mentoring, and skill-building with carrier support for future education.

The IUFU does not intend to replace or duplicate the existing education opportunities in Ukrainian universities. It supports Ukrainian educational institutions and its members (teachers and students) by connecting them to transnational networks “to counter the destructive effects of brain drain through creating access to educational infrastructure and academic knowledge for students irrespective of their current location”. The aim of the IUFU’s education program is “to study the role of Ukraine in changing European and global contexts, placing questions relevant for Ukrainian students into a transnational comparative perspective”.

The IUFU is part of the Central European University (CEU) and funded by philanthropic sources, mostly by the Open Society University Network and further American foundations, as well as the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Its teaching staff includes teachers and researchers from the CEU, Ukrainian and German partner institutions, and other internationally recognized academics. The IUFU works in cooperation with universities in Ukraine and Germany while participating in the Ukrainian Global University initiative and exploring future partnerships with Ukrainian universities.

The IUFU defines itself as a transnational solidarity program. Its name was chosen as a reminder of the various clandestine and exiled educational initiatives in Eastern Europe that have existed throughout the 19-20th centuries, such as the “flying universities” and the “Invisible Colleges”.

Flying universities were informal education systems with underground classes organized by national teachers to national students to resist foreign occupation (i.e. Russification and Germanification in Poland during the 19th-early 20th century) or communist regimes (in Poland and Hungary during the 1970-1980s). Invisible Colleges were organized by the CEU after the fall of the Berlin Wall, first in Hungary in 1992 and later in other East European countries, to assist promising national students with scholarship, mentoring and academic support at national institutions, in lack of institutional framework.

If the new endeavor for Ukrainian scholars and students was named “Invisible University”, it could be due to three reasons. First, “flying universities” recall clandestine educational initiatives. Second, “Invisible University” refers more to the tradition of Invisible Colleges which the CEU set up in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989. Third, “invisible” also refers to the form of operation of the university that provides online classes and summer/winter universities.

Although the IUFU is built on the legacy of “flying universities” and “invisible colleges”, my argument is that it recalls another educational initiative – the Free Europe University in Exile. The latter was an American higher education initiative, implemented in France in 1951, to support Eastern European refugees who fled the communist takeover after WW2. The FEUE and its study center were funded by American philanthropic sources (National Committee for a Free Europe, Ford Foundation). The core operation was the FEUE’s study center called Free Europe College (Collège de l’Europe libre) in Strasbourg, France, which organized special educational training for the Eastern European refugees to complete their university studies. This special educational training consisted of national seminars for each nationality represented at the Free Europe College and summer universities with prominent Western and exiled scholars and public figures to discuss actual geopolitical issues and the future of Soviet bloc countries upon liberation. The FEUE and its study center were both publicly known and accredited educational institutions, but they did not deliver diplomas.

The Free Europe University in Exile was a three-sided educational endeavor, set up with American financial support in a host country to support refugee youth from Central and East Europe to resist Sovietization and train young liberals with a democratic spirit upon liberation. For this reason, the FEUE is very much in common with the Invisible University for Ukraine, which is implemented in the Budapest Campus of the CEU, funded by American philanthropic sources, in favor of Ukrainian academics and students at risk. Thanks to the online courses and following the aim “to counter the destructive effects of brain drain”, the IUFU can operate in Ukraine. It was unimaginable for the FEUE behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

Nevertheless, the CEU’s Invisible University for Ukraine is not the only initiative for Ukrainian students at risk. The Kosciuszko Foundation ‒ founded in 2010 to support intellectual, scientific, and cultural exchange between Poland and the US ‒ also organized online academic courses for Ukrainian students in humanities and social sciences called Flying University Courses for Ukrainian Students (FUUS).

Veronika Durin-Hornyik PhD

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