In 1983 the Austrian Committee of WUS was formally established. The first activity was a Round Table on “The role of the university in the global development context”.
As it turned out in the preparations there had already existed a former Austrian Committee of WUS between 1967 and 1973, mainly based on an ecumenical co-operation of student organisations and people with a strong focus on addressing the situation of students from the South in Austria and lobbying for a better Austrian development assistance. The committee, which was largely based in Vienna, got recognised by International WUS but lost momentum and finally stopped operating.
In this context it is worth noting that Vienna played a particular role in the history of WUS as it was there where in 1920 in view of the devastating situation of universities and their students after the First World War the idea for creating an organisation called European Student Relief emerged, which later became World University Service as documented elsewhere in this book commemorating 100 years of WUS history. However, at the time and until the 60s no efforts had been made to set up an Austrian Committee although Austria and Vienna did play a role in WUS activities after World War 2 and in the refugee influx after the invasion of Hungary by Soviet troops in 1956, as described above by Cyril Ritchie and Thorvald Stoltenberg.
Support to students from the South and universities in the South
The first objectives and fields of involvement of the Austrian WUS committee created in October 1983 after an intense preparatory process, were the support to ongoing programs of WUS International in Africa, like the distance education program of the Namibian Extension Unit serving refugee students from Namibia in Zambia, the situation of universities under military repression in Latin America like the National University of El Salvador, educational assistance to children of ex-political detainees in The Philippines or an educational summer camp in Palestine. It was also concerned with better conditions for students from the South in Austria and the development of co-operation with Southern universities for which purpose seminars at the University of Graz with Klavs Wulff, Nigel Hartley of WUS UK and Kambiz Ghawami of WUS Germany on “New Ways of Educational Assistance from a Development Policy Perspective” (1983) and “Studying in Austria for students from the South” (1984) prepared the ground. WUS Austria soon was active with local committees in Vienna, Graz, Salzburg and Klagenfurt. Accordingly, the focus was on the global South, in particular also on the issue of academic freedom and solidarity as well as international academic co-operation.
For example, in 1985, WUS Austria in co-operation with International WUS and other WUS committees organised a retreat on “University Cooperation in the North-South relationship” as well as in 1988 a ground-breaking workshop with the Austrian Rector’s Conference on the same topic in Graz. In his contribution, Manfred Nowak gives an account of this work which resulted in the “Lima Declaration” of 1988 on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education, while International WUS at the General Assembly in Nantes (1984) established a Commission on Academic Solidarity and Cooperation co-ordinated by Wolfgang Benedek and also started a respective program.
Focus on academic co-operation East-West-South In the context of the fall of the Berlin wall.
WUS Austria responded with several initiatives to reach out to the new democracies and to support the students from the Eastern European countries with a “Mitteleuropa Scholarship Programme” in 1989. In March 1990 WUS Austria organised the “International Consultation on Academic Freedom and Solidarity: Inquiry into new Needs and Forms of University Cooperation East-West-South” held in Graz. One outcome was a pilot “Central and Eastern Europe Programme” of International WUS in September 1990. Another outcome was a “Handbook on Student and Academic Cooperation East-West-South” published by WUS Austria in 1991. The title was also to address concerns in International WUS and some committees that the new focus on Eastern Europe should not be to the detriment of the continued support to the Southern partners. Several initiatives took place in close co-operation with UNESCO/ CEPES in Paris/Bucharest and the International Association of Universities. Fact-finding was also undertaken on the situation of foreign students in Bulgaria.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union left a large number of foreign students from developing countries there without any support. WUS Austria together with International WUS reacted by establishing the “Emergency Assistance Program to Assist Students from Developing Countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)” based on a fact-finding report in 1992 which provided 6-months scholarships to several hundred students in St. Petersburg and Moscow where offices were opened for that purpose. It also assisted a return program for students who could not continue their studies at Russian universities.
However, in 1991 the dissolution of Yugoslavia led to violent conflict and war first in Croatia and then also in Bosnia-Herzegovina resulting in a fast-increasing number of refugee students arriving in Austria. WUS Austria decided to meet the challenge of assisting them. This period will be described in a separate contribution on “WUS Austria responses to educational emergencies in the Balkans (1992 – 2002)”.
Wolfgang Benedek is professor emeritus at the University of Graz. He was director of the Institute of International Law and International Relations and of the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (ETC) of the University of Graz; lecturer at Vienna Diplomatic Academy, University of Ljubljana and at the European Master Programmes on Human Rights and Democracy in Venice and Sarajevo. He was OSCE rapporteur under the Moscow Mechanism on Chechnya (2018) and on Belarus (2019). He holds doctorates h.c. from Universities of Sarajevo and Pristina for leading the assistance to those universities during and after the war. In 1983 he was co-founder of WUS Austria and long-time head residing in Graz. He is at present chair of its supervisory board, leader of many projects in the field of the right to education and human rights in the Balkans and beyond and editor of the Manual on Human Rights Education: Understanding Human Rights, available in 17 languages.