Magazine article Times Higher Education

No Imminent Return for Free Thinkers of Exiled Institution

Magazine article Times Higher Education

No Imminent Return for Free Thinkers of Exiled Institution

Article excerpt

Temporary Lithuanian home for Belarusians offers unaccustomed freedom. Matthew Reisz reports.

The European Humanities University is a strange anomaly in the world of higher education: a Belarusian university operating on Lithuanian soil after being driven into exile by Belarus' authoritarian president, and now overseen by an international governing board of educational experts and civil society leaders.

The EHU was "basically created by philosophers", according to the current director of the history department, Pavel Tereshkovich.

In 1992, he says, "a generation of philosophers, including the rector (Anatoli Mikhailov), had an idea to change the world and, in particular, Belarus. So they took advantage of a short period of real democracy to set up the EHU in Minsk.

Another goal was to overcome the ideological blinkers and lack of contact with the outside world, which had characterised the Soviet period: "After the Cold War, we didn't understand our colleagues from the West when we met up with them. The main goal was to close the gap."

"The focus on the humanities is embedded in the name," explains Darius Udrys, vice-rector for development and communications, "which reflects one of the important goals of the founders. The humanities and social sciences had been heavily ideologised under the Soviet system and this was an attempt to create an alternative to that heritage as Belarus liberated itself from the Soviet Union: to re-establish the humanities as serious fields of enquiry and not ideologically driven."

In 1994, however, when Alexander Lukashenko became president of Belarus for the first time, Tereshkovich recalls how the new leader "saw the EHU as designed to prepare a new Western-thinking elite and said, 'We don't need such an elite, we will prepare our own'". This led to a concerted campaign to close the university, with the rector summoned to the Ministry of Education and pressured to resign.

Since he refused to do so, the authorities instigated a series of inspections but found no cause for complaint and had to fall back on a transparent ruse: the EHU campus, like all buildings in the centre of Minsk, was officially rented from Lukashenko's administration, so in the summer of 2004 the agreement was simply withdrawn. The president would later take personal credit for the closure.

That might have been the end of it, but these events soon generated much outrage and support. Universities in Russia, Poland and Bulgaria all opened their doors to EHU students wanting to complete their degrees. Money poured in from the European Commission, the Nordic Council of Ministers and many US private donors such as the billionaire George Soros. Both Poland and Lithuania offered to house a reborn EHU.

Since the latter borders Belarus, it became the preferred option and the university reopened in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, a year later in 2005, initially with around 250 new students. It celebrated its 20th anniversary at the end of last year, notably with an event at the British Academy jointly organised with the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics.

Divided learning

Of about 1,600 students at EHU, a third are on programmes in Vilnius while the rest study online from their homes in Belarus. There are also around 250 academic staff, some of them expelled from the Belarus state university sector, who generally come to Vilnius for a week at a time and stay in hotels. Teaching is carried out in Russian and Belarusian, as students and staff prefer, unlike in the official Belarusian universities where native speakers of Belarusian are expected to use only Russian.

As well as land and funds, the Lithuanian government has been generous in issuing visas to relatives who want to visit resident students. Since Lithuania is part of the Bologna Process and the EHU is registered as a Lithuanian university, graduates obtain qualifications recognised just about everywhere except by public-sector employers in their native Belarus. …

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