Working with WUS in the 1970s

In May 1973 I joined WUS UK in my mid-twenties. I had been the sabbatical President of the Students’ Union at Warwick University during the heady late sixties which was followed by three years’ experience of working as a systems analyst in a large global company. I had no experience of working in an NGO, even one as small and financially vulnerable as WUS UK. Its three full time staff and four part time staff were based in a little, run-down office in Tottenham, London. I suspected that I was offered the job of General Secretary by the Executive Committee as a more experienced person would have asked about the imminent ending of WUS’s scholarship programme with a consequent major decline in its income. 

The Chair, Barbara How, was remarkably supportive, but the Executive members had little NGO or management experience and were unable to offer strategic direction and management support that with hindsight would have been so valuable to me and the organisation. Nevertheless, the energy and commitment of colleagues carried along our work on the crest of a wave. 

At the outset, I set off to spend a couple of weeks travelling to and speaking with some of the core student and staff members of WUS in Scotland and Wales to hear their views. I remember their commitment to social justice, their hard work in fundraising but also the bonhomie in the pubs together after work. I was full of enthusiasm as we explored new avenues of practical work together for University students to combat the colonial legacies of apartheid and global injustice. 

In 1974, Aberdeen WUS brought together 10 Catholic and 10 Protestant Belfast children for a holiday in Scotland

On 11 September 1973, four months later, the horrific coup took place in Chile. I was approached by Alan Angell- a young academic from Oxford who was the secretary of an informal group of academics, calling itself Academics for Chile. They knew of WUS UK’s good reputation in Universities for supporting refugee students dating back to its work with Hungarian students (1956) and Czechoslovak students (1968).  

Despite the severe reservations of my predecessor, who thought that there would be little interest in Latin American refugees in the UK and even less money, the Council agreed to create a Chile Refugee scholarship programme. This was a high-risk decision for WUS, my predecessor was in some ways right, but WUS needed to uphold its principles and take risks or it would wither on the vine.  

Within 4 months, despite an unhelpful if not hostile Conservative government, WUS and its local constituency, has raised an astonishing £39,000 for Chilean refugee students (ten times this in 2020 values).  This demonstration of the practical public support given by universities was an important factor in my lobbying of officials, political advisers and ministers in Whitehall and Westminster; this was reinforced by the press and letter writing campaign we instigated to persuade the new Labour government to fund the WUS Chilean refugee scholarship scheme. In July 1974 we finally succeeded and secured a one-year grant from the British Aid Ministry of £175,000.  

The whole of 1974 was unforgettable, we often worked throughout the week and weekends – frequently 12 sometimes 15 hours a day – to create a sophisticated and effective international scholarship programme going well beyond offering scholarships to those already in the UK, we wanted to reach out to those in prison and in danger in Latin America and bring them to the UK. I have great memories of the team- work with Christine Whitehead, John King, Liz Fraser, Pauline Martin, and Tom Shebbeare  in 1974, who played a crucial role in developing the successful operational programme. The was as challenging as any human right work in my life, it was literally vital. Our work was under close surveillance by both the UK and Chilean governments, yet we needed to communicate across continents with individuals who were often in hiding without emails, the internet, or even fax machines while phone lines and letter were easy to eavesdrop or open. Eventually many hundreds of individual and their families escaped from danger to study in the UK. Much of this was due to the brave work of people like Ricardo Lagos in Chile. 

Dudley Seers

As the Chile programme developed, I needed to conduct a delicate balancing act between politicians, civil servants, academics, local activists and Chile human rights campaigners to ensure that the programme was sustainable. One of my minor triumphs was to persuade Dudley Seers, a development guru who had established the IDS at Sussex to become Chairman of our awards committee. He was extraordinarily effective and became a wonderful personal mentor in this challenging work. A decade later, I persuaded him to chair the Latin America Committee of the British Refugee Council where once again he interlinked human rights and development in practice.  

WUS UK’s reputation for development work for Chilean refugees made it comparatively easy for me to fundraise for a substantial scholarship programmes to support Ugandan (1977) and then, despite strong Foreign Office objections, to create a programme for Ethiopian/ Eritrean (1978) refugee students, some of whom were still in East Africa. In developing both programmes speedily, we learnt much from the successful Chile programme, but it did mean creating new networks both in East African and among African academics in the UK. There were challenging and sometimes too interesting visits within Africa, including one to Addis Ababa during the “Red Terror” in 1977. This was to persuade the British Ambassador to end his objection to our refugee programme. I was glad to have returned successfully. 

African refugee programming meeting, Alan Phillips (right)

WUS (UK) helped fund SACHED, a dynamic South African educational organisation working in pioneering and courageous ways to circumvent apartheid. They educated me about the harshness of apartheid taking me to education projects in Soweto when I stopped off in Johannesburg on my way to Rhodesia, still under the Smith regime. Here we supported WUS (Tad Mitsui, Dai Jones, Teddy Zengeni) build up the small University scholarship programme for impoverished black students with WUS UK funding over 600 students at the University of Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe transforming the campus to a majority black student body.  

A major focus for 1977 was to bring together WUS’s disparate small offices and create some synergy between staff. Eventually, we were able to move out of its inadequate small office in Tottenham and buy a fine, rundown building at 19-20 Compton Terrace in Highbury at a bargain price. Over the next year we renovated the building and the central heating so that we did not need two layers of jumpers in the winter! 

WUS worked where it could with other like-minded NGOs. One of these was the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL)- an academic NGO- that has played a crucial role in the 1930s helped many Jewish refugee academics flee from Nazi persecution. I formed a delightful, personal friendship with their Secretary of 40 years, Esther Simpson. She wanted to retire, while SPSL needed a new direction. I remember a meeting with Iain Wright (WUS UK Chairman), Lord Ashby and Lord Kahn (the Chairman and Treasurer of SPSL) in Kings College Cambridge where WUS agreed to give SPLS (renamed CARA today) office space and suggested that our Liz Fraser should act as their Secretary. It was highly successful compact, and it’s so good to see that today the “Council for At-Risk Academics” (CARA) still plays an important role. 

Now that WUS UK had a capable team, strong funding and good quality programmes, we were able to use our experience and resources to influence other agencies including Oxfam, Christian Aid and even the UK Home Office on refugee policies and practices. By 1981 WUS had helped close the British Council for the Aid to refugees and create the new British Refugee Council.  

I also enjoyed getting back to campaigning for the right of refugee students to receive grants without waiting 3 years for residence. Although the 1979 election stopped the proposed legislation the new Conservative government accepted our proposals in 1980 making it a fitting time to leave WUS.   

Einstein was a refugee, 1977

Working for WUS transformed my understanding of human rights and development in many practical ways. It showed me how it is possible for an international organisation composed of committees both in the affluent North and the impoverished South to form genuine partnerships and ensure that there was effective participation even though, as ever, the organisation was open to manipulation by shrewd political operators. Although I had no planned career path, I was able to move on from WUS to help set up the British Refugee Council in 1982 (BRC), then I continued onwards to Minority Rights Group International in 1989 for over a decade combatting ethnic discrimination as a major source of social injustice and one of the causes of conflicts and refugees. I was nominated by Robin Cook to be the UK  expert at the Council of Europe, with responsibility for monitoring the application of minority rights law in 39 countries of Europe. Today the wheel has turned full cycle now that I have retired. I am working with academics to understand how the WUS and BRC programmes gave agency to refugees and what the implications are for future refugee programmes. 

Author profile

Alan Phillips was WUS (UK) General Secretary from 1973 to 1981. He moved on to help establish the British Refugee Council in 1982. In 1989 he was appointed Director of the Minority Rights Group International, leaving it in 2000 to become the UK expert on national minorities at the Council of Europe and its President until 2010. In recent years he has helped save WUS UK archives and supported research on its historic work. He has been honoured by the Chilean and UK governments, as well as by the University of Warwick.