International WUS from a national committee perspective

In 1966 I became one of two Australian delegates to the international general assembly in Dar-es-Salaam, one of just six female delegates. President Julius Nyerere attended the assembly, and opened the symposium on “The university’s role in the development of the Third World” which highlighted the social responsibilities of students, privileged by their education. With decolonization underway in Africa, but stubborn white regimes Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), South Africa and South-West Africa (Namibia), the assembly was a lively forum debating the issues and their import for the international WUS Programme of Action. In addition to the assembly, I participated in a WUS workcamp in Burundi. Ostensibly  for the construction of playing fields for the small university, and to engage with the local students, there were only three international volunteers in the first week: myself, a Dutchman and a Ghanaian, plus Tom Turner and Michel Gouault from WUS International. The students had just finished their academic year and found the local cinema more attractive evening entertainment than cultural exchanges. Nor was manual labour on their agenda, and as we attacked the scrub with basic tools, we were surrounded daily by amazed unemployed local people. Heavy equipment arrived the following week rendering our labour unnecessary. I never saw a report of the workcamp. But I did go on to visit WUS people in Malawi and Southern Rhodesia, and a penfriend in Cape Town, a social worker, who took me as her ‘student assistant’ to visit clients in two townships. I spent months on my return campaigning against apartheid, its fall being one of the events I so much wanted but doubted seeing in my lifetime.   

Leysin Assembly in 1968

I attended the further general assemblies as an Australian delegate in 1968 (Leysin), 1970 (Madras), 1972 (Ibadan, where I was elected to the executive committee), 1974 (Munich) and 1978 (Sri Lanka). Traveling to and from Europe in 1968, I was asked to visit WUS projects in Indonesia and The Philippines, and have written a brief account of these projects elsewhere in this volume. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to WUS people in both countries, especially Koesnadi Hardjasoemantri, Secretary of the Indonesian Ministry of Higher Education, and Dr Filemon (‘Ting’) Tanchoco, Vice-President of Manila Central University, for their wisdom, patience and friendship for a raw but enthusiastic young Aussie woman. Declaring myself ‘a citizen of the world’ in the heady air of the Leysin Assembly, Ting quietly took me aside, suggesting I needed to be a citizen of Australia first, a hard lesson then but one of the many I value from our shortened friendship due to his tragic accidental death in 1977.     

Robin Burns (Centre) with Thai delegates in Madras 1970

My memory of the business of assemblies is now dim, though I do know hours were spent going through the various reports and the very difficult one, deciding the Programme of Action for the next two years. With the introduction of regional groupings to replace the international sponsors as the basic structure for WUS governance : Africa, Asia (later Asia/Pacific), Europe/North America and Latin America, it was hard to meet people from outside one’s own as group and sub-group meetings were held at every spare moment. I remember the patient work of international chairpersons – in 1966 Dr Qureshi of Pakistan, later Professor Wally Fox-Decent (Canada) then Britain’s Iain Wright while the international staff were extremely busy behind the scenes. It’s hard to imagine a major international meeting now, without at least laptop computers and photocopiers to produce urgently-needed documents. The symposia provided two-day respite for them and great interest for participants. From the 1966 one mentioned above, the next moved to “The International Role of the University”, with UNESCO participation, then in 1972 “The Crisis of Development” and the subsequent report noted that it was “the result in many ways of the shift in direction which has been taking place in WUS…It is a change which is still taking place and one that started at the grass roots, WUS committees in the developed world tried to come to grips with what they could do to end the exploitation of the Third World…In the Third World WUS committees were becoming dissatisfied with the traditional bricks and mortar approach. … greater attention had to be paid to popular involvement.” (from the 1972 symposium report).   


Robin Burns at Geneva Seminar 1970

Assemblies were fraught, with intense politicking for national/regional representation on the international executive committee and for project acceptance. Australia seemed an outsider, not part of Europe and with New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, a tiny Pacific group. At Leysin, Koesnadi and Ting simply accepted me into the Asian group with “You’re one of us!”  Subsequently at executive committee meetings I was taken under the wing of finance office Georgette Robert, with warm memories of her raclette lunches at the villa. But first, there was the Juelsminde Seminar, a joint meeting of WUSI, the International Student Movement for the United Nations and the International Federation of Medical Students Associations. Exchanging, debating and drafting the Juelsminde Statement (reproduced in Roger Eggleston’s contribution here) in the short darkness of Danish summer nights, the explosion of worker-student action in France and the Soviet invasion of  Czechoslovakia, we were out to save the world through action to eliminate injustices. The late Dr Shantilal Sarupria played a key role with Roger to produce the “Student Guide to Action for Development” and I edited an Asian version. I wonder now if they were used by national committees.  

 L-R: Filemon Tanchoco (Philippines), Shantilal Sarupria (India), Ganeshan (India) and Chidambaranathan (WUSI General Secretary) 1968 Leysin Assembly

The call for more relevant courses was perhaps behind WUSI signing a contract in 1974 with Action for Development, part of the Freedom from Hunger Campaign, FAO, for a survey of development education in higher education in Europe and North America. Secretary-General Nathan asked me to undertake it, a busy three months of intense travel, interviews and report-writing. Subsequently I developed the survey for my PhD dissertation, and spent six months in Sweden for a detailed Australia-Sweden comparison. As I worked on the research, the end of my term on the international executive came up, and WUS Australia had ceased. With the exception of Georgette and Lo, the members of the Geneva office whom I knew had all moved on to other international agencies. Thus my knowledge of the international work now sadly largely dried up.  

WUS involvement led me into comparative education, after a brief 3 years in the diplomatic service which I was encouraged to join to work in their development assistance section. As a woman they would only send me to the ‘first’ world, with postings to Germany and Ireland. I hated the restrictions and spent the rest of my career at La Trobe University, inspired by a worldview and concerns largely attributable to my experiences in WUS. I taught and researched aspects of social education, multicultural education, women’s studies and public health. With the demise of WUSA I became involved in peace education and was for 3 years executive secretary of the Peace Education Commission of the International Peace Research Association (1983-6). My final project was a study of science in remote areas which took me to Antarctica for 4 months, the Desert Ecological Research Unit in Namibia, an archaeological expedition to Uzbekistan and a conservation expedition to the Altai republic in Siberia.

Author profile
Robin Burns

Dr. Robin Burns was a member of the WUS Australia national committee from 1965 to 1969. She was the Australian delegate to the international general assemblies in 1966, 1968, 1970, 1972, 1974 and 1978 and member of the international executive from 1972 to 1976. Her PhD topic on development education grew from her WUS involvement and she taught that and related topics in a 27-year academic career in Comparative Education. She then moved on to Women’s Studies and Public Health. Her final research project was a field study of scientific work in remote locations: Antarctica, the Namib Desert, Uzbekistan and the Altai Republic.