A university that offers support as the bombs rain down

A new European university has been founded to help students and academics in need. One of the founders is Ellen Rutten. “When the Ukraine war started we had to do something.”

Ellen Rutten: “The mentors, most of them experienced academics, are paired with students, academics or artists.” (Photo: Daniël Rommens)

In spring 2021, Ellen Rutten, Professor of Russian Literature at the University of Amsterdam, spoke with two fellow academics from Florence and Berlin about taking in refugee academics from Belarus, which was in the grip of political unrest. These people had virtually nowhere to go.

Rutten and her fellow academics came up with a solution: a new European university for students, academics and artists in need. They called their institution the University of New Europe. Its aim was to offer practical help, jobs and moral support. Academics across Europe signed an open letter detailing the plan, written by the three founders. And then Russian forces rolled into Ukraine, launching a large-scale invasion after years of smouldering conflict in the east of the country.

  • Do you need help or want to contribute? Check the UNE website for all the possibilities.

How did the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine in February change the nature of your project?
“There was a massive surge of sadness and shock among students and academics alike. Speaking personally, I was overwhelmed by the news. It was clear that we had to take action. The first thing we did was set up a mentoring programme. This gave academics the chance to volunteer their time to help Ukrainians and also assist Russians and Belarussians in need.”

What does that programme entail?
“The mentors, most of them experienced academics, are paired with students, academics or artists. Our aim is to pair people who have a natural professional connection with each other. Mentors can then support applicants by helping them out with their research, guiding them through the grant application process or putting them in touch with people in their network. And only recently, a mentor helped one critical Russian academic leave the country.
We now have over three hundred mentorships on the go. Those mentor couples are also able to make use of various programmes posted on our website. These are essentially job vacancy pages offering workplaces, PhD positions, online lectures and services.”

‘Ukrainians no longer see the invasion as Putin’s personal war’

What kind of people do you help?
“We were able to offer one Ukrainian researcher a guest appointment at the University of Amsterdam. And when a Russian PhD student had to flee and was unable to obtain a US visa for her and her family, we could arrange that for her. We also helped a Belarussian artist who has been living in the Netherlands for some time and was unable to return home because of her critical stance against the regime. She received career guidance and an introduction to the Dutch art world. In addition, we offer support to Ukrainians who want to stay in their homeland or find it difficult to leave: academics who type away at their paper for a scientific journal from a bunker, while bombs are raining down outside.”  

Where will the university be located?
“There is no physical location as yet. Currently, we are only able to offer online programmes. At first, we had plans to move into an existing university in Riga. Since our target group is mainly from Eastern Europe, that seemed like a logical step. But partly due to sensitivities at the university we were unable to go ahead. This is not unrelated to a hatred of Russians in Latvia and the Baltic states, for reasons that are understandable.”

Do Ukrainians even want to share a single location with Russians?
“It is still our aim to bring them together but at the same time we want to stress that this is not a reconciliation project. For now, we have decided to help each group individually.
Resentment against Russians has certainly grown. Ukrainians no longer see the invasion as Putin’s personal war. This is understandable, given that Russian superiority is a mainstay of cultural education in Russia. You have to possess a very critical mindset to wriggle free of that cultural stranglehold. A while back, for example, I attended a lecture where a dissident – a vocal opponent of Putin – declared in front of Ukrainians that the annexation of Crimea was actually justifiable. That notion, that Russians rule the roost in the region, is something certain Russians carry with them unconsciously. And I understand the anger this evokes in people from neighbouring countries. Especially Ukraine.”

‘Lectures are streamed from Munich and Vienna’

Do you provide courses and lecture series like other universities?
“We have just started a free lecture series which is open to both refugee academics and students, and which earns them credits. The emphasis is very much on the Ukraine war and Ukrainian speakers. The lectures are streamed from Munich and Vienna. We also run a winter school with a short programme and organise Eastsplainers, a public platform featuring refugee or migrant scientists, journalists, writers, musicians and other artists.”

Where do you obtain your funding?
“When we started out, we really had to look around. Our own universities were willing to free up some of our time, but you’d be amazed how many hours go into this initiative. The eight organisers work most evenings, and at weekends there’s no let-up either. We receive tens of thousands of euros from our own universities and the German Foreign Office. And we are now in a position to employ some staff. Once we have a more detailed and comprehensive plan and are able to establish an actual institution, we hope to attract European funding on a structural basis.”

How do you and your fellow founders see the future of the university?
“We still have a long way to go. We can now provide much-needed assistance in relation to this war, but the ultimate goal is to create more modules, encompassing refugees from other areas. We also want to attract other European students with a view to fuelling a cultural exchange.”

HOP, Peer van Tetterode
Translation: Taalcentrum-VU

HOP Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau

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