As a WUS UK Volunteer 1977-82

I became involved with WUS(UK) in 1977, when I took on coordinating the Oxford Refugee Scholarships Scheme while a postgraduate student at Oxford University. I later became a member of the WUS(UK) national committee, and served for one or two years as vice-chair. This contribution is concerned with both ‘local activist’ and ‘national representative’ experiences.

The Oxford Refugee Scholarships Scheme

The Oxford Refugee Scholarships Scheme was quite substantial in the late 1970s. (It disappeared sometime in the late 1980s, so far as I can tell, but a similar scheme is operating now, albeit on a smaller scale. I’ve even been involved, forty years on, having recently returned to Oxford, in efforts to rebuild it.) Here, briefly, is how it worked.

As well as university departments, Oxford students belong to some 35 colleges, which are social, residential for a substantial proportion of students, and, for undergraduates, provide a significant proportion of teaching contact.

The scheme encouraged student committees (known as JCRs) in individual colleges to establish a fund to support the living expenses of a refugee student within their college. Where JCRs agreed, money was collected through a small supplement to the termly bills (known as battels) which students paid for their accommodation, meals and other college costs. In most cases, this was on an opt-out basis and, because most students contributed, the sum per head was small. If the student body raised sufficient funds for a refugee student’s living expenses, then the college and the university would waive their academic fees.

The model has been used elsewhere, but the scheme at Oxford in the late 1970s was one of the most substantial. Over 20 colleges were involved, with five or six new refugee scholars therefore being recruited every year (for three-year courses). These could be either undergraduates or graduates. This was managed from 1974 through an elected student representative committee, with the support of the University Admissions Office and WUS. It was greatly helped by Anne Yates, the University’s Advisor to Overseas Students, herself an exile from apartheid (and biographer of Michael Scott).

Applications came mostly from refugees in countries of first refuge – particularly in Africa and Latin America – rather than those already in Britain, as would more likely be the case today. They were advertised through British Council offices and UNHCR as well as through WUS, which was immensely supportive from 1974 onwards. Stuart Appleton from WUS(UK) headquarters visited Oxford for regular coordination meetings of the committee representing the different college groups involved, which I coordinated through 1977-80, and WUS worked with the university, college authorities and the student committee to support the application and selection processes. It was through Stuart that I came to know WUS well.

WUS engagement also served as a basis for some wider campaigning in Oxford around international and refugee student issues. Links were forged between the committee and international student groups such as the African Society. Several committee members have remained engaged with refugee issues since (including myself and my wife, Carole Teague/Souter, whom I met through the committee and who is now Master of one of Oxford’s postgraduate colleges).

It would not have been possible to run as successful a scheme as this without the professional support that came from WUS(UK). Although this particular scheme faded sometime in the later

1980s, or possibly the 1990s – records on this are hard to find – a similar scheme was initiated by students at several colleges around the middle of the decade now ending. This has been reinforced this year by the introduction of a number of new refugee scholarships and by a university-wide scheme to waive fees (now considerably higher in real terms than they were in the late ‘70s) where there is student or college support along lines similar to the historic scheme.

Similar schemes have been established independently in other universities, with coordination through the Universities of Sanctuary organisation. In Oxford, interest in scholarships has also proved a catalyst for revitalising action involving different parts of the university – departments as well as colleges, staff as well as students – in support of the (now much larger) resident refugee communities within the city. The legacy of WUS(UK) involvement can be seen in all of this.

The WUS(UK) executive

I served on the WUS(UK) executive for three or four years, including two (I think) as vice-chair, covering the period from around 1978 to 1982. (At this time, at least, it was the custom for one of the student representatives to be vice-chair.)

This was a very busy time for WUS(UK). It was running major scholarship programmes that had been set up by the Labour government (which left office in 1979) to support Chilean, Ugandan and Ethiopian/Eritrean refugees at tertiary institutions in the UK, and was also funding many students at the then University of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the city then known as Salisbury (now Harare), again through funding from the British government. It was substantially engaged in international WUS activities – I remember many executive discussions concerned with funding proposals to the Scandinavian and Canadian development agencies. And it campaigned extensively to defend international and refugee access to education against measures to increase charges and restrict access introduced by the incoming Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher.

WUS(UK) had quite a high profile on campuses at this time, where these campaigns fed into wider student activism. ‘Einstein was a refugee’ was one particularly effective campaign theme promoted at the time. (Would the emphasis today be more on access in itself rather than on high achievers?) There was widespread student support for the opposition movements to dictatorships in Latin America, with which WUS’s large Chilean programme intersected. Support for the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua (which happened in 1979) was another area of student activism, alongside opposition to apartheid and enthusiasm for the end of minority rule in Zimbabwe. WUS’s engagement with the processes of social and political change in Africa and Latin America was substantial and its expertise was valuable within these movements of student solidarity.

The extent of student engagement with WUS(UK) was evident at the annual meetings in its calendar where it discussed its work with academic and student supporters and where the incoming executive was elected. These were lively events, socially as well as intellectually and politically.

The executive, which met I think bi-monthly (perhaps quarterly) at WUS(UK)’s headquarters in Islington was more formal. It was my first experience of involvement in managing an international NGO (I’ve had many later) and I remember being impressed by the professionalism and expertise within the organisation. The staff, headed by Alan Phillips, were highly committed and respected, and I made a number of friendships (particularly with Sarah Hayward, who later formed Skills for Southern Africa, then Skills for Southern Sudan, and sadly died in 2016). I hope I was able to make some contribution from a student perspective, as I hope I’ve also done in this brief essay.

My departure from the WUS executive, when I completed my doctoral thesis and ceased to be a student, more or less coincided with Alan Phillips’ departure as general secretary to become deputy director of the British Refugee Council. My last main recollection is of the rather complex restructuring that was put in place for the succession. It was evident, by that time, that changes in government policies and priorities in Britain would lead to reduced funding, making it difficult for WUS(UK) to maintain the level of activity that it had achieved. That this was so is sad, but it made a tremendous contribution to refugee education and student engagement with international and refugee activity during the 1970s and 1980s.

Author profile
David Souter

Originally student coordinator of the Oxford Refugee Scholarships Scheme for WUS, David Souter later became a member of the WUS UK national committee, 1978 to 1982, including several years as its vice-chair. His active time with WUS ended when he completed his doctorate. He worked subsequently in international relations (on the Cyprus problem, for an international development pressure group and as international officer for the British Labour Party) and in the information sector (including a period as chief executive of an intergovernmental communications agency). Since 2003 he has worked as an independent expert on the interface between the digital society and public policy, primarily in recent years to United Nations agencies.