By Lavínia Pereira
Imagine a University that prioritises self-development, awareness and civic engagement!
Within the scope of this research on the ‘Future of University’, and its contribution to more just and sustainable futures, last February I went to Bucharest for a ‘short-term scientific mission’ (STSM) funded by INTREPID Cost Action, aiming to explore the educational and organizational model of Alternative University (AU) of Romania. My expectations were high. I had met Traian Bruma – one of the founders of AU – a couple of months earlier, and his enthusiastic presentation at a gathering at ISCSP in Lisbon caught my attention. Founded in 2008 by a group of students from Politehnica University of Bucharest, integrated in the student associative movements of Romania, AU is a non-conventional project for higher education. Proposing itself as an alternative to the Romanian higher education conventional system, considered by the founders to be out-dated, disconnected from the world and indifferent to the real needs of the students, the Alternative University strived to be a freedom-centred organization with an educational model mainly focused in human development in its various dimensions, with a strong emphasis in self-directed learning.
Even if not acknowledged by the public education system of Romania – they don’t award students with formal diplomas – over the last few years AU has grown in dimension and ambition. Assuming its own place as a non-conventional educational model, AU proved to be a relevant project, by creating a collaborative network between academics, business, and society, which is considered a crucial trait of today’s research policy.
The four main areas of training are Education, Entrepreneurship, Marketing, and Management, organized respectively as four main ‘communities of practice’, which allow students to learn by doing, in a close relationship with professors, who are simultaneously professionals, collaborating with AU and working outside the University in their own activities (e.g. business, NGOs and/or social impact projects). This opportunity to learn directly from practitioners brings students a step closer to the range of skills needed to eventually co-create knowledge in transdisciplinary contexts that promote collaboration between stakeholders. It also provides them with the necessary competencies to more easily enter the job market or to become future entrepreneurs. In fact, the existing ‘business incubator’ has already helped many students to start their own business projects.
A central dimension of AU’s educational model is the existing program focused on self-development, awareness, community building, and civic engagement.
“We focus pretty much on how people think of themselves and we offer them some life skills, experiences too, not only professional skills, and we try to encourage them to know themselves better, to understand how they relate to themselves and to the world. And this is a constant ping-pong between what you understand about yourself and how do you decide to use those ‘superpowers’ that you find within yourself and put them to something useful for the world.” (Interview with Corina Angelescu, member of the ‘Core Team’ of AU)
The program stands on three distinct though interconnected pillars. The first pillar is ‘Self-awareness’: students are encouraged to deal with their own individual needs, in order to design their path in learning and life, but also to address their main difficulties, insecurities and personal struggles. The second one – ‘Building community’ – aims at the development of competencies of the student to collaborate, get involved, and engage with common values and common purpose of a larger group of people. With the third one, ‘Acting for the world’, AU aims to encourage students to find their own place in their local communities and in the world, to understand the existing problems there, and how to contribute to address those challenges at a local scale, with a global mindset.
The existing ‘challenge-based curriculum’ of AU provides students with the opportunity to acquire competences in Inter- and Transdisciplinary (IT/TD). Students are motivated to engage with the community, find a challenge they relate to and want to address, to afterwards deep-dive into that challenge, understand its workings and causes, and then proceed to design a solution for that specific challenge. In order to find solutions to those real-world problems, they need to create IT teams, bringing people from different areas of expertise together, to collaborate and find complementarities in the process of creating a solution towards a common goal. Through this process students are also encouraged to engage, interact and co-create with different stakeholders (e.g. people from the local communities, NGO’s, institutions, and local businesses) hence implementing TD practices.
As for the students I met, there is clearly a ‘before and after’ effect when it comes to reflecting on their experience at the Alternative University. Entering AU was a life-changing experience after twelve, sometimes fifteen years within the public system. AU’s curriculum in ‘life skills’ (which runs in parallel with the other four technical curricula) is one of the fundamental aspects leading to that transformative experience. The differences in between the two educational paradigms are such that, starting from a place of isolation, vocational disorientation and lack of autonomy, students end up being not only the protagonists of their own pathway of learning, but also potential agents of change in their surrounding environment.
Luiza Apostu is a former student who, with the support of AU ‘Entrepreneurship community’ developed a learning program for kids between seven and twelve years old anchored on the principles of social-emotional learning. By developing competencies such as self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social-awareness, and relationship skills, the program aims at contributing to youngsters well-being, empowering them in an early age with the necessary competencies not only to succeed in their own path of learning but also in their life. Ultimately, the program fills a gap in the mainstream educational system.
Luiza is a personal example of that transformative experience provided by AU, which combines a pathway of self-development with the discovery of a greater purpose, through the implementation of a project with social impact.
With its educational project, AU intends to bring together, in an integrated process of learning, the personal route of individual awareness, the building of appropriate skills and competencies to engage in community building, ultimately motivating the student to actively assume his/her social and civic responsibility.
To a certain extent we can say that the educational project of AU resonates with Fadel’s proposal on ‘Character Education’: “Facing the challenges of the 21st century requires a deliberative effort to cultivate personal growth and the ability to fulfill social and community responsibilities as global citizens. (…) To build a foundation for lifelong learning, support successful relationships at home, in the community, and in the workplace, and develop the personal values and virtues for sustainable participation in a globalized world” .
Shouldn’t the more conventional Institutions of Higher Education be attentive to that need in order to contribute to the well-being of their students and to more sustainable futures, overcoming the competitive and stressful environment  generated by market-oriented policies ?
Lavínia Pereira has a PhD in Philosophy and is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon (ICS – ULisboa). firstname.lastname@example.org