Graz. An Austrian newspaper campaigning for the homeless has set up a project that will allow those living on the streets to attend university lectures.
The Graz-based newspaper Megaphon says universal access to education is the key to a working democracy, but that those living on the edge of society are the least likely to gain entry to it.
Under the scheme, university professors hold lectures in hostels and shelters and the homeless are given access to the city's universities and their facilities in the hope that this will lead to their reintegration into society.
Ethnologist Leopold Neuhold of Karl Franzens University launched the programme in October. His address to homeless people from four hostels, titled "Laughter as the best medicine", was the first in a series of lectures.
Dr Neuhold said: "One of the main problems for the homeless is getting a foot back in the door of society. We hope the contact to others that this programme will provide will be the first step towards achieving that goal."
The courses offered are not traditional university subjects but instead aim to encourage participation in discussions.
Dr Neuhold said: "The participants may not end up with a degree at the end of it, but anyone who completes a course will be given a certificate and I'm sure it will give them back a degree of respect."
About 30 homeless participants attended the first lecture. Most said they would continue to attend the weekly lectures.
Historians Brigitte Dorfer and Michaela Kronthaler head a course for women and have taken a group on walking tours around the city, discussing the role of women in Graz.
Some lectures will also be held in English. Dr Neuhold said: "Many of those living on the streets are well-educated citizens to whom fate has dealt a bad hand. It is surprising just how many speak foreign languages, and their English is far superior to mine."
Graz's homeless residents are also being given the chance to use the libraries, institutes, greenhouses and museums belonging to the city's universities.
Judith Schwentner, editor-in-chief of Megaphon , has chosen the motto "education without barriers" for the project and says that the opportunity is not only aimed at the homeless.
She hopes that other socially disadvantaged groups, such as asylum seekers, will also take part. "The project is part of a wider goal to integrate the socially disadvantaged back into society. In other countries, homeless men and women can get financial help from the government to complete a degree course and this is our aim for Austria," Ms Schwentner said.