One hundred years since the foundation of European Student Relief (ESR), the predecessor to World University Service, it is appropriate to celebrate the occasion with a reflective account of the achievements, and of the changing emphases and activities of the international body and national WUS groups. Only a small number remain active today, but at its height in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s there were over 50 national committees affiliated with WUS International (WUSI) and an extensive global Programme of Action.

As 2020 approached, three WUS national committees divided the major tasks for the centenary celebration: Austrian WUS would organise a conference, German WUS the history and its publication, and the archival digitalisation would be arranged by Canadian WUS. The conference has been postponed to September 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a small editorial board led by Robin Burns (Australia) and Bettina Schmidt (Germany) has worked hard to put together a lively account. Alan Phillips has been especially active and supportive as a board member, and as a result there are many contributions from former staff of WUS UK. Clive Nettleton and Roger Roy have also been advisory, contributive and supportive members.          

With the closure of the WUS International (WUSI) office in Geneva in 1996, Cyril Ritchie, Roger Eggleston and Nathan, former staff members, retrieved the archives from Geneva and sent them to Carleton University in Canada. Unfortunately, the pandemic has delayed the Carleton University digitalisation project, and it was not possible to access the recently-available British WUS archives at the University of Warwick.  However, we are grateful to the archivists who have scanned some material for us from the John Henry Fond archive at the University of British Columbia, and Robin Burns’  archive at the University of Melbourne. The early history is available in the 50th anniversary publication and the German WUS 60th anniversary Festschrift. Wolfgang Nies has provided a well-referenced history from the early organisations that led to the formation of WUS and its subsequent decades. Most of the account here is largely based on recollections and some personal archives. The most serious gap is for the 1990s; Manfred Nowak’s contribution gives the most comprehensive account of the events around the closure of the international office and program. These are issues an historiographer would consider limitations of the narrative. However, the memories and reflections provide rich personal accounts of involvement with WUS and perspectives on the nature of the programs. Most authors were WUS staff members either internationally or nationally, volunteers or program recipients. All have gone to great effort to provide lively and valuable accounts, consulting others, checking details and meeting editorial deadlines. The editorial team offers all contributors very warm thanks for their efforts and participation.

Through a contact list of WUS Alumni, or as has been suggested, WUS Dinosaurs, and the personal contacts of editorial board members, as well as the assistance of WUS Germany and WUS Austria, many emails and phone calls have gone out calling for contributions. We can proudly report that the oldest contributor was born in 1927, and the earliest WUSI staff member who contributes began in 1954. Many are over 60, and distance from events obviously plays some part in the accounts especially as many were involved with WUS early in their careers. We asked each to comment on the impact of work with WUS on subsequent career and personal paths. It is clear both that memories of working for WUS are still vivid, and that people went on to work in related areas, often in major national or international organisations for refugees, human rights, development assistance and more. Some also met life partners in the course of working for WUS.

Education for refugees: material aid, scholarships and post-study preparation

Born in the aftermath of World War 1, material aid and scholarships for the continuation of study was a major purpose of the predecessor organisations and then of WUS. Former Associate Secretary for East and Southern Africa Tad Mitsui distinguishes three categories of programs by the second half of the 1970s. These emerged before and continued after that period, too: service to students, assistance to international students particularly refugees, and participation in community development and popular consciousness-raising programs. This is exemplified in V.N. Thiagharajan’s 20 year history of WUS India, and Saths Moodley’s account of Irish WUS. Laksiri Fernando has added a fourth activity, advocacy for democratic educational institutions exemplifying human rights, educational quality and academic freedom. Again, this is both an ongoing, underlying concern and a major one today.

From the 1960s assistance was directed to universities in developing countries. It included sanatoria for students recovering from TB, student hostels, provision of textbooks and facilities for on-campus residents (see for example contributions from Tad Mitsui and V.N. Thiagharajan). There was also material assistance to the shattered universities in the Balkans following the break-up of Yugoslavia and subsequent violent conflict (see especially Wolfgang Benedek’s account).

Scholarships: a major focus of WUS

The 1970s and 1980s saw a growth and flourishing of WUS activity, as documented in Wolfgang Nies’ history. From the many accounts here from national committees, scholarships and the educational activities associated with them came to dominate WUS. Scholarships were awarded in-country for disadvantaged people such as Black students in Southern Africa, refugee students (a long list following repression and coups) and students especially in the North from the global South. As contributors document, this involved delicate negotiations with funding organisations and campaigns to influence relevant government policies.

Thus the second category of action, WUS scholarships, forms a major theme of the contributions. In part this reflects the large number of accounts from former staff of WUS UK, and detailed accounts from WUS Germany and WUS Austria. WUS committees and WUSI were involved especially with scholarships in the 1970s and 1980s, which is congruent with the original purpose of European Student Relief and then after World War II the International Student Service (ISS). The majority of contributions in this volume detail scholarship programs, as well as assistance to foreign, not just refugee, students and there are moving first-hand stories of the immense value of such assistance. There are three aspects: scholarships in the donor country for refugees, notably from the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, after the Pinochet coup of 1973 in Chile and Idi Amin’s murderous regime in Uganda from 1972 till his defeat by Tanzania in 1979. Secondly, refugees from Algeria, Palestine, Greece, Central America and more recently the Balkans have also been awarded WUS scholarships and related assistance. Thirdly, WUS offered third country scholarships and assistance with eventual return, and scholarships for Black students in South Africa, South-west Africa (Namibia) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and in exile abroad. Most recently the continuing committees have been heavily involved with the huge flow of refugees in the 21st century (see in particular the accounts by Hervé Hamon, Wolfgang Benedek and Manfred Nowak). Social justice rather than mere assistance is fundamental in WUS refugee programs especially in the last five decades; another aspect, help to self-help, was advocated in the ESR programs from the beginning, increasingly couched in an explicit human rights framework.

The earlier accounts contain details relevant to work with refugees today, from the WUS predecessor programs and found in particular in Alan Phillips’ overview of the work of WUS UK 1971-1980, Alan Angell on Academics for Chile, and Jose Bengoa and Germán Molina’s report of WUS solidarity with Chile, and also in Wolfgang Nies’ history of German WUS. WUS UK established processes to expedite student selection, to obtain visas and to assist families as well as students to cushion their arrival. Ongoing welfare was also a concern and as conditions changed, issues arose of resettlement on return or in a third country closer to home. This included orientation to applying skills learnt abroad to home conditions and environments, an issue inadequately faced by many non-WUS overseas student programs worldwide.

WUS refugee scholarship alumni have attained high office subsequently. However, several contributors point to the need for, and paucity of, evaluations of foreign scholarship programs especially the application of acquired skills in employment. Two exceptions deserve mention: Tina Wallace’s research on WUS and education in the Horn of Africa, and Manfred Nowak’s review of WUS Austria’s Balkans assistance.

Exemplifying human rights

A significant human rights issue emerges from the accounts from the 1980s of the need to encourage more women to apply for scholarships. Until then, WUS had not considered pre-university programs to improve women’s eligibility. Nevertheless, the increasing importance of social justice in WUS work, a need highlighted in the effects of under-privilege on education, and hence employment and life chances, meant there was a need to go further down the educational ladder to bring about change. This has been demonstrated especially in WUS programs for women in the Horn of Africa (see Marilyn Thomson, Bridget Walker and Tina Wallace).      

Access to education has played an important role throughout the history of WUS and could be considered fundamental. An early 60s publication edited by international secretary-general Bernard Ducret and Rafe-uz-Zaman (The University Today. Its role and place in society) brings together research on the role and place in society of the university, almost anticipating the 1966 seminar on the role of the university in the development of the third world. There is a consistent balance in WUS work between the advocacy for personal rights to a quality education, and its provision through scholarships, and the responsibilities of the educated person and the educating institutions to the wider society, national and beyond. What constitutes quality education and the right to it will be debated at the forthcoming centenary conference in Vienna. From access to equipment and books, accommodation and healthcare to the content of the curriculum and debates on national education policies, WUS has been involved (see Peter Fensham’s contribution, and the history of German WUS). The 1988 WUS Lima Declaration on Access to Education clearly articulates the international role not just of the university but of the co-operation and connection between institutions, staff and students, while the representation of WUS and its members on UN, government and international NGOs both promotes globalisation and the advocacy of the principles for which WUS stands (see articles by Laksiri Fernando and Manfred Nowak). The activities of German, Austrian and UK WUS clearly demonstrate both the outreach of WUS and the extent of its influence.  While lacking details for this volume, other WUS committees have had similar involvements. 

WUS and development education

Some WUS programs have been directly educational. This is exemplified in the topics for the seminars associated with the biennial general assemblies, over 50 years of WUS Canada’s annual overseas seminars, programs of German WUS and the later work of WUS Australia (see Helen Hill’s account). For seven years WUS Austria conducted a post-graduate course on human rights for women especially but not exclusively from Uganda (see Gerd Oberleitner’s contribution). In previous decades WUS committees engaged in education campaigns at home on specific issues relevant to WUS and the reasons for its work. An interesting endeavour was the Treasure Vans of Canada (see Roger Roy’s account) and the International Bazaar of Foreign Cultures of German WUS (see Wolfgang Nies’ account), both with an educational as well as a fundraising aspect. For a period of the late 60s and into the 70s development education was a medium for this and, following the 1968 Juelsminde Seminar on the role of students in development, called for students to demand more socially and politically relevant courses (see contributions by Roger Eggleston and Helen Hill). North-South issues especially inequality was a major theme.

Opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa and Namibia (then South-West Africa) and the white regime in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) was the subject of both information campaigns (this became a major activity for Danish WUS; see Elisabeth Kiørboe) and scholarship programs. WUS was responsible for the large number (900) of Black graduates ready to serve the country after its liberation from white rule (see Alan Phillips on Zimbabwe scholarships) and also many graduates in South Africa. WUS international was not only involved in scholarship schemes in Southern Africa but provided detailed documentation for national campaigns. Around 1970 WUSI established a research/action unit which focused on Southern African issues. Such activity in South Africa carried huge risk to those involved, as shown by Richard Taylor’s and Clive Nettleton’s accounts. Clive was banned for his work, leading to emigration and a position in the WUS international secretariat.

Refugees or the under-representation of women in higher education are social justice issues and cannot be isolated from the causative conditions, as shown especially in the accounts of both the Chile and African scholarship schemes. Development education aims to explore these conditions and based in particular on the educational philosophy and techniques of the late Paulo Freire, to enable learners to analyse their situation and act for change. It also involves revealing the policies and conditions in the developed world that lead to underdevelopment in the global South and also in developed countries, especially for minority groups. Individual WUS groups attempted development education but as the case of WUS Australia demonstrated, it can have negative implications for project fundraising. Some analyses suggest that fundraising for projects abroad is not the most appropriate action for advocates of development, and may be anti-developmental, a position exemplified in recent work on post-colonialism and the emerging concern in comparative education in particular on educational quality, and on equity, equality, inclusivity and participation in education. Such education has been more successful in WUS educational programs about women’s issues, outlined in Esua Goldsmith’s narrative. She became WUS UK’s first women’s officer. The international secretariat established a women’s position too, as did other national committees.

WUS involves students for national development

Development education was part of a wider movement of concern about development, variously framed but interpreted by WUS in social justice terms. This had significant implications for WUS projects in the 60s and 70s. President Julius Nyerere articulated it in his opening address for the symposium, “The university’s role in the development of the third world” at the 1966 WUS General Assembly in Dar-es-Salaam. He concluded, “The role of the university in a developing country is to contribute; to give ideas, manpower, and service for the furtherance of human equality, human dignity and human development.” The following year he began an Education for Self-Reliance program to link intellectual and practical work. Patrick van Rensburg in Botswana established the Serowe Brigades in the late 1960s, in an attempt to link education and training with income-yielding production and was supported by the Swedish Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. Globally a number of other experiments were initiated, stemming initially from practices in socialist countries. The latter emphasised education with production, while others targeted community development and the deployment of students in predominantly village projects.

Two national WUS committees engaged with their national requirements for student deployment in community development as a pre-requisite for graduation. The Indonesian WUS chairman, Koesnadi Hardjsoemantri, was the secretary for the Ministry for Higher Education which facilitated WUS’s involvement. The main outcome was Project Manisrenggo at Yogyakarta, Central Java, where young engineering students assisted a group of villages to develop a simple irrigation system to eliminate hours of water carrying, increasing the range of crops farmed and enabling ponds for fish farming for both nutrition and sale. And in the Philippines, Project LINA placed students from the Manila Central University, of which WUS chairman Dr FIlemon Tanchoco Jr was executive vice-president, for practical experience in poor villages. (see accounts of these projects in Laksiri Fernando’s and Robin Burns’ accounts of WUS in Asia and the Pacific). Participation in Project LINA fulfilled the national student service requirements, but the whole project grew from ‘Ting’ Tanchoco’s personal commitment to social justice and service. WUSI supported these projects and was the beneficiary of Ting’s wisdom when he was permitted by the Marcos regime to attend international meetings, becoming international chairman at the Manila General Assembly until his tragic death in 1977. Tad Mitsui notes regrettably that the national schemes in Tanzania and Zambia denied the WUS committees there a ‘niche’. Other WUS committees created student outreach programs, for example WUS India and except at times of acute crises, continues as a part of WUS activities.

Asserting solidarity and the right to education

And there were undertones of dispute over political issues impinging on the very composition of WUSI and of the Programme of Action. At the Leysin assembly in 1968, for example, debate was heated about recognition of the WUS committee in Israel; it was declined membership and WUS participated in a scholarship program to support Palestinian refugee students (Laksiri Fernando). There was a political edge to many of the debates at general assemblies, especially after the re-organisation Roger Eggleston describes which introduced regional voting blocs instead of sponsor representation (see Alan Phillips on international WUS from a national committee perspective). Then, as documented here, there were the issues involved over the suspected CIA infiltration of some activities (see Peter Fensham), and collaboration with the International University Education Fund for scholarships in South Africa after it was infiltrated by a member of the South African security police (see especially Tad Mitsui, Louise Morris and Clive Nettleton).

The theme of the Nantes General Assembly workshop in 1984 was “Academic Solidarity and Cooperation”. A commission WUS appointed to carry forward the conclusions of the workshop led in 1988 to the “Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom and Autonomy of Institutions of Higher Education” (see especially Manfred Nowak’s contribution, a key person for its creation). In addition to this emphasis within WUS programs, WUSI played a part through its consultative status in the deliberations and programs concerning human rights in a number of international organisations including ECOSOC and UNESCO, as well as the UN Commission on Human Rights (see contributions from Manfred Nowak, Laksiri Fernando and Wolfgang Benedek). The theme selected for the centenary conference, “The Right to Quality Education”, illustrates continued WUS advocacy of these issues.

Fragmentation and loss

However, solidarity and co-operation became problematic between WUS committees and regional blocs. In the mid-80s there were several changes of international General Secretary in a short period and intense political activity within the organisation. A further complication was the reliance on donor funding for the Geneva secretariat and some national committees when the funders began to favour support for projects with little leeway for overall administrative expenses. The big scholarship programs involved money from national government organisations, some with no WUS committee. When programs ceased, or national policies changed, so did the funding, which affected the international office (see Laksiri’s account). And there were simmering tensions with some national committees.

All this also affected national WUS operations. Some national committees retained their university base for support and programming throughout, including Canada and France, and in the UK, especially in the 1970s (see David Souter, Nigel Twose and Alan Angell). However, it had disappeared by 2000 when WUS there became Education Action International. It has been difficult to tease out exactly what happened in the collapse of many other WUS national and local committees though the demise of a central WUSI no doubt contributed. Without it, there was little to hold the regional groups together and the remaining WUS committees today operate independently. Manfred Nowak gives a detailed account of the stages including bankruptcy, that led to the collapse of the international WUS office and with it, no body to co-ordinate the work of the different national and regional groups. It is sadly ironic that this occurred in 2000, as the new century began. There are lessons for other international NGOs here, especially concerning funding and management structures. 

Celebrating 100 years of achievement

The contributions here, nevertheless, attest to a lively and important role that WUS has played across the world in the changing scene of higher education. On the one hand, there are the more intimate outcomes: from the importance to the German university scene of acceptance by WUS and its stepping-stone to wide academic emergence from the horrors of World War 2, as Wolfgang Nies, Manfred Kulessa, Jonathon Grigoleit and Harald Gans attest, to the huge personal value to foreign students of finding WUS (see Saman Halgamuge, Henning Melber, Mahnaz Rashidi, and Weiping Huang). The work of international co-operation in the university sector, especially north-south partnerships, is on the other hand a consistent and important product of WUS work over the decades, and while the German-Vietnam University is a unique example (see Wolfgang Nies and Bui Cong Tho), other examples are numerous, with samples here from Malawi (Charles and Godfrey Mphande), Zambia (James Matale), Namibia (Henning, Melber and Peter H. Katjavivi), Brazil (Maocir Gadotti), Indonesia (Suchjar Effendi) and Cameroon (Daniel Ayu Mbi).

The debates, issues and programs enriched not only individuals but educational institutions and the communities in which they were situated. WUS alumni have held important senior posts in government (including several Presidents), universities and international agencies. Most notably, it has contributed to an international workforce imbued with the spirit of solidarity, justice, co-operation and critical engagement. It is a history to celebrate!

Robin Burns, on behalf of the Editorial team, Bettina Schmidt (co-editor), Alan Phillips, Clive Nettleton and Roger Roy.

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.