The SFU’s role in Vienna

“City air makes you free”, is a German saying describing a principle of law in the Middle Ages. Since then, cities have lost none of their appeal; for many they are in fact more appealing than ever. People are attracted by better job opportunities, a wide range of cultural activities – which, however, are increasingly available in rural areas as well – and especially by better educational opportunities. These advantages outweigh the often architecturally forbidding urban areas in which people have to live. Hence, the outstanding educational institutions in Vienna which are sites of reflection, ambition and innovation, come as no surprise. Vienna is the second biggest university city in the German-speaking areas, offering a wide range of educational and vocational training opportunities at public and private universities and universities of applied sciences. The history of these universities is closely intertwined with the city. The principle of “freedom of sciences and their teaching” is enshrined in constitutional law, thus defining clear parameters. The church cannot exert any influence and the state and the city are expected to take upmost care of the intellectual property of scientists and researchers, and to support them financially so they can achieve their purpose in life.

The Sigmund Freud University Vienna is an integral part of this valuable educational network, with branches in Paris, Ljubljana, Berlin, Milan and Linz  and more than 3.000 students.

How did the SFU come into existence? In 1999, the Private University Act passed the Austrian Parliament, making it possible to found a university in Austria. As defined by this law, the wording must include “private” university, thus differentiating private universities from state institutions. An extensive and strict accreditation procedure is in place and must be repeated every few years to meet the required quality standards. The Austrian authorities exclusively use foreign assessments for this procedure.

In 2003, the journey began. Univ. Prof. Dr. Alfred Pritz, Univ.-Prof. Dr. Jutta Fiegl, Mr. Heinz Laubreuter and Dr. Elisabeth Vykoukal founded the Sigmund Freud University (SFU). They aimed at transforming psychotherapy into psychotherapy science, based on an academic foundation. They were inspired by Sigmund Freud’s “The Question of Lay Analysis” from 1926 which anticipated psychoanalysis as a separate discipline. In 2005, after several major set-backs, the Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs were accredited; the PhD program was accredited later on. This marked a turning point in the psychotherapy sciences which are deeply rooted in Vienna.

Around 1870, Franz Anton Messmer (1736-1815) developed the basis for the method of hypnosis which was then widely used in Europe in the 19th century. Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) groundbreaking work in the field of psychoanalysis originates in Messmer’s methods. Based on Freud’s work, the manifold forms of modern psychotherapy developed. Both Messmer and Freud worked in Vienna, both had to emigrate, albeit for different reasons, and both have shaped intellectual life in Vienna and all over the world in the last two centuries. Their, and their followers work, has brought healing to millions of people with mental health issues.

The SFU is founded on this basis. None of us is Sigmund Freud or Franz Anton Messmer, however. Science works like this: it roots in the toil of detailed research which sometimes leads to brilliant results, but is quite often incomplete. In this context it needs to be mentioned that training in psychotherapy has changed drastically. Previously it required a professional background in the psycho-social field, plus further trainings. The SFU was the first to introduce a university education where practical and theoretical aspects work hand in hand and complement each other in a unique way, similarly to studying dental medicine. In addition, the SFU founded psychotherapeutic and psychological outpatient clinics, which today form a pillar in providing mental health services to people living in Vienna. The SFU also offers its degree courses in psychotherapy in English, currently to students from 56 different countries.  Treatment in the outpatient clinics is offered in different languages and refugees are treated free of charge.

In 2007, the Faculty of Psychology was founded. Psychology has its own academic history which has partly existed longer than psychotherapy science. The Faculty of Psychology focusses on a methodological, academic education and on integrating qualitative and quantitative research.

In 2009, the SFU started to expand the range of offered degree programs. In 2015, a course of studies in medicine was accredited, followed by law in 2016. They are the SFU newcomers, but are among the oldest fields in the tradition of the sciences. This growth requires a respectful, but also a critical attitude: what is still valid? What must be considered for the future? Which changes are needed in the curricula? Where should the primary research interest be, leading to satisfactory results?

The possibilities for a young university are manifold: offering innovative training, student-centered teaching, finding and filling promising research niches. And the city is enriched with students eager to learn, new treatment possibilities for patients, dialogue and exchange. What more can you ask for?

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Alfred Pritz
Rector, Sigmund Freud University Vienna

Article published on pages 43-44 in the “13th Vienna Science Report 2015” (Wissenschaftsbericht der Stadt Wien 2015)