Universities transformed for the summer

(c) Kinderbüro der Universität Wien/Lisa Gastager

Did you ever wonder what a university looks like in summer? When students leave to start their internships, to travel or to lie in bed all day long, enjoying not having to do anything? Well, in Vienna at least, the universities are taken over by children who want to try out a student’s life.

For two weeks in July, thousands of children from the age of seven to twelve visited lectures and seminars, participated in workshops and went on excursions which took place in the city’s most important universities. The ninth annual Children’s University Vienna was just as popular as ever. All activities are free, but have to be booked in advance. Places are limited and demand is high – especially for courses covering scientific topics such as chemistry or physics. In order to secure a place for lectures such as ‘From the big bang to the future of the universe’, parents queued up several hours so that they did not have to disappoint their offspring.

All courses are held by academic staff who work unpaid. Still, the quality of lectures is ensured. This year, many well-known academics spoke to children about their field of research, such as the Vice-chancellor of the University of Vienna, Georg Winckler. Also international guests held lectures, for example Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, Andrew Derrington held an event called “Your brain is a computer of meat”.

It may come as a surprise to some people that children actually want to go to university in their summer holidays. Perhaps a clue as to why can be found in the children’s university motto: have fun, be curious and ask questions – examinations are strictly forbidden, grades do not exist. Furthermore, lecturers are asked to make their presentations children-friendly and interactive.

Children’s Universities are a relatively new project. The first lectures for children were held in 2002, in Germany, and the University of Vienna organised its first children’s university in 2003. The Children’s University Vienna quickly became one of the largest and most diverse events of this kind and received international acknowledgment.

Since then, more and more similar events took place all over Europe. The UK is no exception, as the national headquarters for Children’s Universities in the UK lies in Manchester. In 2008 the European Children’s Universities Network (EUCU) was formed in order to promote the growth of children’s universities. On their website they write that there is no single concept for organising  Children’s Universities – it can be an annual event such as it is in Vienna, or a series of lectures held regularly.

The ultimate question is: how beneficial are such university courses for children? Are they more likely to attend higher education?  There is no data in order to answer this question, but nevertheless, the EUCU stated in their declaration that combating social exclusion and poverty are the main goals of Children’s Universities. This should be reached by the inclusion of children from all backgrounds. Curiosity and critical thinking are encouraged with the aim that children discover their intellectual potentials. Even though seven year olds are probably not conscious of those aims, the experiences they had at university in the past might contribute to the decision about their education in the future.


Judita Huber

Image courtesy of Kinderbüro der Universität Wien/Lisa Gastager