Maria Kaika Wins 2021 European Award for Excellence in Teaching

July 1, 2021

 Central European University (CEU) is pleased to announce the winner of the tenth annual European Award for Excellence in Teaching in the Social Sciences and Humanities as Prof. Dr. Maria Kaika of the University of Amsterdam. The prestigious European award is accompanied by the €5,000 Diener Prize, and will be presented at CEU’s Opening Ceremony in September 2021.

According to Marvin Lazerson, Professor of Higher Education Policy at CEU and chair of the judging panel, “the breadth and depth of Kaika’s work as a teacher, scholar and mentor are remarkable. They reveal what talent and passion can accomplish. Her achievements are stunning.”

“The ability to offer young people the tools to achieve freedom and a better life is what attracted me to academia,” says Kaika, Professor of Urban, Regional and Environmental Planning at the Department of Human Geography, Planning and International Development (GPIO). “I come from a family of refugees and working-class people who could never access higher education themselves; but they instilled in me the love of learning. I could go to university only thanks to publicly-funded education, and I owe everything I achieved professionally to my inspiring teachers at all educational levels. My teaching practice and philosophy is guided by bell hooks’ call for 'Teaching to Transgress against racial, sexual, and class boundaries, in order to achieve the gift of freedom.' I see interaction with students more as learning, rather than teaching; a two-way process, where both teacher and student contribute ideas. As a scholar-teacher, I aim to challenge existing knowledge, unsettle received ways of thinking, and inspire further learning and research. Research-led teaching is what creates inspiring university teaching.”

Michael Kozakowski, director of CEU’s Center for Teaching and Learning added: “The selection committee was greatly impressed by Professor Kaika’s scholarly achievements and sustained commitment to excellence in teaching. They noted, in particular, Kaika’s commitment to creating more equitable cities and communities, demonstrated in her work with refugees, individuals grappling with debt and socio-economic disadvantage, and other vulnerable members of society. Her commitment to not just teaching about access and marginalization, but incorporation of students, refugees, and other members of society as fellow constructors of knowledge and community is exemplary.”

The European Award for Excellence in Teaching in the Social Sciences and Humanities was launched by CEU Provost and Pro-Rector Liviu Matei for CEU’s 20th anniversary in 2011 to honor academics in the social sciences and humanities who teach at higher education institutions in the European Higher Education Area. As a part of CEU’s commitment to excellence in teaching within the institution and across Europe and beyond, the award is administered by the University’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). The Diener Prize is made possible by a generous gift from Steven and Linda Diener in memory of Ilona Diener. For further information on the award and previous recipients, please visit:

The 2021 winner of the European Award for Excellence in Teaching in the Social Sciences and Humanities:

Kaika is a strong believer in equal opportunities to access university education. Over the past 18 years she has taken concrete steps to address inequalities inside the classroom and inside academic institutions, and beyond academia, to broaden access to higher education.

Inside the classroom, where students come from different parts of the world and have varied class, gender, and ethnic backgrounds that are reflected in varied language, writing, and academic expression skills, Kaika pays particular attention to classroom dynamics and to developing strategies to avoid competitive in-classroom practices. She creates an atmosphere of serenity and cooperation, so all students can feel safe to ask questions and interact.

Beyond academia, Kaika has been reaching out to those who, for different reasons, are unlikely to get access to higher education, especially minors arriving as refugees. Kaika’s teaching practice involved this most disenfranchised group of young people in 2017-18 at the largest refugee camp in Europe at the time (SOFTEX) in Thessaloniki, Greece. She gathered an international team who volunteered to teach to the camp-based workshop on ‘Remaking Homes.’ The ‘curriculum’ was to explore concepts of displacement, home, and homemaking. To overcome language barriers, music and community theatre was used to communicate key concepts and ideas, based on Augusto Boal’s “theatre of the oppressed” method.

The team included theatre director Kent Ekberg and producer Kajsa Nordin, from Teater Reflex Stockholm, the internationally acclaimed musician Mousa Elias, urban geographers Henrik Ernstson and Charalampos Tsavdaroglou, pedagogues Raida Ibrahim and Niki Gakoudi, humanitarian aid worker Lamya Karkour, and field assistant Sofia Zachou. The workshop’s ‘assignment’ involved the creation of a play on ‘homemaking’ that the young refugees would themselves author, stage, and perform with the guidance of the academic and artistic team. Over 100 people in the camp joined into the daily workshops. The play was later also staged at the National Theatre of Greece North.

As Kaika highlights, “I see the inability to harness the full intellectual contribution of disadvantaged young people because they cannot make it to university as a massive impediment to social, political, and environmental improvement. The key aim of my teaching practice has been and will be to address, institutionally and personally, this inequality. While continuing my university teaching and research tasks, I am looking for funding to continue and institute an ‘open civic university’ in refugee camps.”