AT the beginning of the thirteenth century, St Elisabeth, the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary, was born at Bratislava Castle. She spent most of her life caring for the poor, sick and helpless, which is why she is considered the patron saint of social work. Eight centuries later, the founders of a new university in Slovakia have decided to make her the patron saint of their institution too – the St Elisabeth University of Health and Social Sciences.

St Elisabeth University was founded five years ago as a non-profit organisation, mainly at the initiative of Prof. Vladimír Krčméry, who now serves as its rector. The founders say the school applies Christian principles and ethics in health care. According to Krčméry, the university was also founded to help incorporate Slovakia into the EU’s system for university education in health care and social work.

“It’s hard to talk about how successful we have been so far, since the university has only existed for five years now,” he told The Slovak Spectator.

He noted that the university had recently acquired both complex accreditation in Slovakia and international accreditation.

St Elisabeth University currently offers nearly 50 study programmes in Slovakia, including newly-opened Master’s programmes in dentistry and health care management, as well as a PhD programme in social work. But, true to its name, the majority of its programmes focus on social work, nursing, missionary work and charity. To this aim, the university is made up of two faculties: the John Paul II School of Missionary Work in Bratislava and the St Ladislav Faculty of Nursing in Nové Zámky.

The university also houses several departments and institutes across the country, including the P.P. Gojdič Institute of Social Sciences and Healthcare in Prešov and the institutes of social work in Bardejov, Trstená, Žilina and Piešťany. It also houses several institutions in the Czech Republic, namely the Institute of Missionary Work in Prague and a department in Příbram.

This international dimension and cooperation is at the core of the university’s work. It maintains strong connections with Third World countries, especially through its institutes and external workplaces, where the faculty and students have a chance to apply their knowledge. As well as social work institutes in Nairobi and Phnom Penh, which provide local students with the opportunity to take part in the university’s study programmes, there are also several smaller organisations and institutes working under the university’s patronage. These include tropical clinics in Kenya, Uganda, Cambodia, Haiti and Burundi, as well as shelters in Sudan, Ukraine and Russia, and an orphanage in Seredneje, Ukraine. This allows the university’s students to extend a helping hand to people in places where it’s needed.

It also makes the university’s activities very different from the usual international relations programmes that most Slovak universities maintain. Krčméry said the school wants to develop even further in this direction. The next step, which they have already begun, is to take on educating Third World students in their home countries, allowing them to earn a diploma from Slovakia, which would be recognised across the EU.

The school is also planning to open a full-time study programme in Tropical Public Health Care in Cambodia and Uganda, Krčméry said. The programme will be taught in English. Future plans also include a study programme in Physiotherapy in Germany, where the university has established the Institute for Rehabilitation at the Medical Education Centre in Weissenfels. The university will also open a study programme in social work for the Slovak minority in Novi Sad, Serbia.

The St Elisabeth University and its external institutes currently have 759 international students from 18 countries, such as the Czech Republic, Serbia, Kenya, Cambodia, Austria, Poland, Sudan, Uganda, Libya, Burundi, Vietnam, the USA, Haiti, Germany, India and China. But almost 700 of those come from the EU. Krčméry said the school is looking to increase the number of students from Third World countries, even though they attend for free. The St Elisabeth University is definitely unique in Slovakia, but Krčméry downplays its significance, saying it is still in its infancy.

“We haven’t had any major successes except our 30 humanitarian projects in 10 countries, where we’ve been healing and teaching for free for four years now,” he said.