World University Service and its impact in Australia in the 1970s

I first got to know World University Service of Australia (WUSA) in December 1969 when its Director, Brendan O’Dwyer, invited me to speak at its 1970 National Assembly at the University of Melbourne scheduled for a couple of days after my return from my first overseas visit to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia.  I had just completed my Honours degree in Sociology and Politics at Monash University, a suburban Melbourne campus with a reputation for having the most radical student body in Australia. Monash Labor Club students had raised funds for the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the enemy, as Australia was at war in Vietnam) causing legislation to be passed in the Federal Parliament (the ‘Defence Force Protection Act’) making such actions illegal. I had been a member of the Labor Club and supported such actions but no prosecutions were every made under the Act. At the time of the WUSA Assembly I had  just started a Lecturership at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).

Earlier, as a member of the Australian Student Christian Movement (ASCM), I had heard of WUSA, but had not been involved beyond contributing to the regular fund-raising for WUS at the annual SCM National Conferences. The ASCM had been involved in the founding of WUSA (with NUAUS, the National Union of Australian University Students) and there was a great deal of interest in the idea of supporting fellow students and academics around the world who were facing persecution, were refugees or in poverty. I was aware of SCM Conference attenders such as Robin Burns, Peter Fensham, Graydon Henning and George Garnsey who were all active on WUS Committees and of Herb and Betty Feith who had helped found the Volunteer Graduate Scheme for recent graduates to work in Indonesia shortly after its independence (Southall 1965). This program was originally to be administered by the WUSA National Board but became so popular a separate organization, the Overseas Service Bureau (OSB) was established to run one of the world’s first International Volunteering Organizations (Kilby 2014:28). Another group of friends in SCM including John Langmore, Anthony Clunies-Ross, Lyndsay Farrall and Aileen Brown had been motivated to work in the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea before its independence. Anthony had written a short book urging the Australian Government to give 1% of its GDP in overseas aid and this had become a small campaign in Australia, long before it became an international target (Clunies-Ross 1963).  

WUSA in 1969-70 had a project to buy a bus, equip a student canteen, a book-exchange and make contributions to the university library at the new University of Papua and New Guinea (Woroni 11th March 1970). In the early 1970s Papua New Guinea (PNG) was still administered as an Australian Territory, finally achieving independence in 1975. The University of PNG had a number of Australian lecturers and some Australian part time students who were working in the Territorial Administration, although most of the students were locals. It was almost an Australian university and close relations grew up between Australian and PNG students. NUAUS had a ‘village scheme’ run by its PNG Officer, a PNG student Bernard Narakobi, studying Law at the University of Sydney (Ritchie 2020: 240). Under this scheme Australian students could spend their summer vacation visiting villages with PNG University students during their holidays. Again, these projects played a valuable role in educating Australian students about the realities of development issues in a nearby country and resulted in many longstanding people-to-people relationships between Australians and their counterparts in PNG.   

The refugee origins of WUSA were brought home to us during the 1970 National Assembly  when a group of refugees from Czechoslovakia arrived at the assembly venue seeking assistance from WUSA and NUAUS, It was at this Assembly I realised that there was a considerable debate going on within WUS between those who saw it as an emergency relief type of organization funding some useful projects for students and academics such as buses, canteens, libraries and student accommodation in PNG and elsewhere, and those who saw it as a means whereby academics and students could participate in the larger debate, just beginning, on Australia’s role in its region and the role of overseas aid in development. An article on WUS in Woroni, the ANU student newspaper, linked the new attitudes in WUS to the Vietnam war, support for the Moratorium to be held later that year and for political advocacy in favour of improved aid policies (Garnsey 1970).  

After speaking at the National Assembly, I was accepted membership of the National Board of WUSA, prompted by my sense that Brendan O’Dwyer, the Director, had many good ideas about Australia’s role in the region and making aid more effective through people-to-people relationships, and a closer look at education and strategic lobbying of the government. My Board coincided with the move of the WUSA office from Melbourne to a shed-like building on the campus of the Australian National University. On his arrival in Canberra in 1970 Brendan told the Canberra Times ‘Members of the World University Service once devoted their resources toward alleviating the results of underdevelopment but now they worked on the causes of underdevelopment — social, economic and political’ (15.3.70). At the time of our first meeting Brendan had just launched the concept of ‘D Groups’, which were discussion groups on development issues, held with a view to lobbying the major political parties (Woroni 1970).  

One of the main projects supported by WUSA was the South African Committee for Higher Education (SACHED) Trust. The value of promoting this scheme at Australian universities for students and lecturers to support, was that it gave them an understanding of exactly how the Apartheid system was experienced by their fellow students in South Africa at a time when the debate about Apartheid in South Africa had barely begun in Australia.  Much later, when the visits of white sports teams to Australia became controversial and a large campaign emerged against the Springboks, many former WUSA people were mobilized to that cause (Jennett 1989).  

In June 1970 the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF – the international body to which ASCM is affiliated) invited me to be their delegate at the United Nations World Youth Assembly (WYA) in New York in July 1970. As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered to pay the airfare of all Australians nominated by international organizations to this Assembly (in addition to the five young people it selected) I asked for a round-the-world ticket so I could attend the General Assembly of WUS in Madras as part of the Australian delegation, stopping in London, Geneva and Beirut on the way.  

The WYA was an eye-opening experience for me; despite having been a supporter of the campaign to aid the NLF of South Vietnam and active in the Anti-apartheid movement, I had never met members of liberation movements, and there were many at the Assembly particularly from Africa. Our Commission elected as its Chair the representative of the General Union of Palestine Students, causing an outcry from the New York media (Hill 1970). The Vietnam war was still on going and Cold War forms of organization were still operating – both the CIA and Soviet actively supported international youth organizations. As Peter Fensham recalls, there was concern in ASCM in Australia that WUS might be one of those CIA supported student organizations.  

The WUS General Assembly in Madras was more like a meeting of old friends, also with ideological diversity ranging from revolutionary to establishment groups. I attended with three other Australian delegates, Brendan O’Dwyer, Robin Burns and Ken Newcombe, President of NUAUS.  It was a great opportunity to meet people from Germany, Latin America and hear the concerns of students and academics from the Indian sub-continent, most of whom were working in a range of sciences, medicine, engineering and humanities.   

In Australia in the 1960s WUSA campus activity centred largely around organizing an annual ‘Miss University’ beauty and fundraising contest culminating in a Ball which raised   considerable funds for WUSA’s projects. WUSA Director, Brendan O’Dwyer was an articulate advocate of the SACHED project although when I joined the National Board, he was becoming wary of the methods of fund-raising for it.  By the early 1970s Feminist arguments against beauty quests led him to seek to minimize this form of fundraising but there were others in the WUSA Committees who still strongly supported ‘Miss University’ and many international students took part.   

Off the campuses WUSA , in particular through its National Board Chair, Dr Peter Fensham, a Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of Melbourne, was involved in other initiatives. Negotiations had been going on since the early 1960s, under the auspices of Sir John Crawford of the Australian National University, to create some form of co-ordination among the growing number of voluntary associations in Australia involved with overseas aid.  In June 1965 this had resulted in the formation of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid (ACFOA) of which WUSA was a founding member. The other member organizations were the Australian Council of Churches (ACC), Catholic Overseas Relief, Federation of Australian Jewish Welfare Societies, Community Aid Abroad (CAA), Australian Council of Aid to Refugees (Austcare); and the OSB (Kilby 2014: 39).  It had a simple objective in 1965: 

The common objective of all members is to work for social and economic justice, to respond to human needs and to help produce conditions through which people can realise their full potential as human beings (ACFOA 1965). 

Having WUSA in ACFOA was seen by John Crawford (and possibly others) as a way of keeping the University sector (only eight universities in 1960) involved in thinking and research on Australia’s overseas aid program. There was no government agency for international development then; a small aid branch within the Department of External Affairs looked after Australia’s contributions to the Colombo Plan. An article in Tharunka (the University of NSW student newspaper) pointed out that WUSA had close links with the UN unlike most other organizations then.  

WUS enjoys fruitful co-operation with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) in the field of student nutrition, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the field of student health, with the international Labour Organisation (ILO) in the field of cooperative enterprise, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on student refugee problems, and with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) on a variety of concerns relating to higher education.  (Tharunka 1963) 

In March 1971 ACFOA’s Executive Director, Brian Hayes, who had done a great deal to put it on the map, unexpectedly died and Brendan, an Executive Member, was asked to take on the role in an interim capacity. This involved a move to Sydney where the office was co-located with the Australian Council of Churches (ACC). This was a chaotic but very fruitful time for discussion and debate about Australia’s role internationally. Brian Hayes had been a great advocate for ‘Development Education’ which he believed was the only way to get the general public to understand the causes of inequality and the need for aid and that the Government needed to support it if its aid program was to have any public support (Kilby 2014).  

Meanwhile at the student level, a different type of initiative was taken by a member of the ASCM Executive, Tony Della Porta, urged all to read an important article of the day by Ivan Illich, ‘Outwitting the Developers’ (Illich, 1969).1 He managed to persuade ASCM and WUSA and even the Freedom from Hunger Campaign to support a new organizationStudents Involvement in Development (SID) which later became International Development Action (IDA) with a much more radical approach involving students looking critically at some of the impacts of Australian aid to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the New Hebrides). Its best-known publication was ‘Fiji: A Developing Australian Colony (Rokotuivuna et al 1973). A link with SCM by the Chaplain of the University of the South Pacific, Rev Akuila Yabaki enabled a close collaboration between Fiji and Australian students and volunteers. The book was launched in 1973 with a speaking tour of Australia by three of the Fiji students organized by IDA (Narsey 2016). It was then used for decades by the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement and by lecturers at the University of the South Pacific, inspiring similar research by Pacific Island students during the 1980s.  

Tony Della Porta himself was invited to represent students on the committee of the Joint Churches’ new initiative, the Action for World Development program, led by the Australian Council of Churches (Protestant and Orthodox) and the Catholic Bishops Conference. Its main activity was a series of parish level study groups on poverty, inequality, trade etc. organised by the Catholic and Protestant Churches of Australia (Mitchell 2015).  It eventually became a separate organization Action for World Development (AWD) under Vaughan Hinton of the ACC and later Bill Armstrong of Catholic worker movement. It became a member of ACFOA in the early 1970s but had no aid projects at all! It worked for ACFOA’s objectives solely in the education and advocacy fields.   

In Canberra in 1973 the WUS office hosted a group called Development Action, which announced itself in Woroni in the following manner: 

World University Service Australia is providing us with an office in Childers Street for a Resource Centre. Community Aid Abroad, Action for World Development and International Development Action and Third World First are providing the books and handicrafts. We will be stocking everything from lllich and Freire, to Helder Camara. 

We hope to open the Resource Centre two afternoons a week. Needed: Volunteers to man it. Meanwhile — a research project, into coffee (the biggest single commodity after oil) and the international economics of it. How much does the grower get out of what you pay for a jar of coffee? Where does the rest go? (Woroni, Feb. 1973).  

While IDA was engaging students with exploring Australian aid and investment in the Pacific, I was in London working for the ‘Europe-Africa Project’ of the WSCF, on an Internship funded by the United Presbyterian Church of the USA doing similar work looking at European impact on Africa with a strong focus on the Portuguese colonies. To my great surprise, our two weeks orientation in Geneva was organized by a Brazilian group led by the well-known Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. His ideas had a powerful impact on all of us Interns and I could see the close link with what the ACFOA Education Unit was trying to do in Australia. Fortunately, I was in Canberra in January 1973 for the Conference (organized by Brendan O’Dwyer, and the ACFOA Development Education Unit), held immediately after the election of the Whitlam Labor Government after 26 years of Conservative rule, which really put ACFOA on the map as a policy and lobbying organization. It was a most dynamic conference.   

I was also in Australia when Paulo Freire made his only visit there on his way from the 1974 Waigani Seminar at UPNG (Freire 1974), to the Pacific Conference of Churches seminar on Education for Liberation and Community in Fiji (Freire 1974a).  After a packed public meeting in Melbourne, a large residential gathering at a conference site outside Melbourne was organized by the ACC’s Cliff Wright who had met Freire in Geneva and invited him to Australia. Many of the ACFOA affiliates were present, including the staff of the Education Unit, Teachers’ Unions, and a broader range of people including Communist Party members. Its unusual opening session was chaired by ASCM’s Sally Gibson. Participants were given an opportunity to introduce themselves and their interest in the Conference. This enabled Freire to get a sense of the audience and introduced participants to each other. One person who identified as working on a Poverty Investigation was quietly asked by Paulo how much of her time was devoted to “the Rich” as it is hard to understand “the Poor” without knowing the role of “the Rich”! In many ways this conference’s style became the prototype for later conferences organized by the ACFOA Education Unit under Brendan O’Dwyer’s leadership.  

Later in 1974 the President of the National Union of South African Students, Neville Curtis, escaped his banning order in South Africa and sailed clandestinely to Australia. The President of NUAUS (now just AUS) went to meet him and facilitated getting a visa for him, and employment by the ACFOA Education Unit to run an educational campaign about Apartheid and South Africa generally (O’Dwyer 2007). IDA had already done a study on Australian economic ties with South Africa which proved useful background information for the new campaign (Noone 1973). A third member, Kate Moore, who had worked in the WUSA office, joined them and for a number of years this dynamic team organized a number of educational events and publications and did advocacy work. Kate became involved in women and development issues in the lead up to International Women’s Year in 1975 which she attended. Gender issues was an example of a field where Development Education had a profound impact later on development practice in almost all countries as a result of the UN’s Women’s Decade.   

A chapter on Development Education in Australia, co-authored with Robin Burns, will look more closely at the ideas behind development education, the forms it took, how it interacted with and later became overwhelmed by ‘Development Studies’ as an academic specialty and how it relates with similar discourses, Peace Studies, International Studies, Service Learning and Non-formal Education and Informal Education, all of which spun off in Australia from the ideas expressed in the 1973 Canberra Development Education conference, the 1974 Conference with Paulo Freire and subsequent conferences organised by the ACFOA Education Unit. The Australian Labor Party was in power in the early 1970s and WUSA and ACFOA saw many of their ideas, such as the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam and the ending of Conscription, the establishment of an autonomous Aid Agency separate from the Department of Foreign Affairs, the  aspiration to achieve the 1% target in aid and the removal of many restrictions on work by women, become Labor Party policy and eventually Government policy.     

Many years later, when teaching International Community Development at Victoria University, to students from a variety of cultural, economic and national backgrounds, I lamented to my colleague Dr Charles Mphande that there was now no organization specifically for students, to link them with their counterparts in neighbouring countries and learn from their experience before embarking on theoretical and practical studies about development, which WUSA had been in my days as a student. To my surprise he said, yes, he really thought WUSA should be revived in Australia as participation in it in Malawi had been an important part of his education. Fortunately, Charles is also a contributor to this volume on the relationship in WUS between Malawi and Canada. My own recent work has been in Timor-Leste where a new form of people-to-people organization exists, the Friendship City (as opposed to a Sister City which is a proprietary term) where groups of people link at a municipal level and Australians provide assistance, advocacy, education, information, logistics etc. requested by the people in their Friendship municipality.  

 A new WUSA could become a framework for this sort of activity to exist at the student level. With internet, zoom and other new communications links the technology of international co-operation is not difficult. More difficult, however, would be  the challenges of a national structure in a federal country like Australia that now has a great  diversity of forms of higher education that currently are being pressured by the national government to tailor their emphases and courses for students more singularly to the needs of the economy.  


ACFOA (1965). Australian Council for Overseas Aid Rules, Canberra.  

Clunies-Ross, Anthony (1963) One Per Cent: the case for greater Australian Aid. Melbourne University Press, Carlton. 

Development Action’ in Woroni, 23rd February 1973     

Freire, Paulo (1974). ‘Liberation through literacy’ in Education in Melanesia: Proceedings of the Eighth Waigani Seminar held in Port Moresby 5 to 10 May 1974, edited by J. Brammall & R. May, University of Papua New Guinea, Australian National University. 

Freire, Paulo (1974a). ‘Education, Liberation and the Church’, paper to the seminar on Education for Liberation and Community, Pacific Conference of Churches, Suva.  

Freire, Paulo, (1994). Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Continuum, NY 

Garnsey, George (1970). ‘Stirring Gently’, Woroni, 22nd April 1970. 

Hill, Helen (1970) The Second United Nations. The Nation (Sydney)  No. 7.  

Hill, Helen (1973). ‘An Explosion in the Culture of Silence’ Cultural Action for Freedom, and Pedagogy of the Oppressed [review of books by Paulo Freire], Nation Review, March 16-22. 

Illich, Ivan (1969). ‘Outwitting the Developed Countries’, New York Review of Books, November 6, 

Introducing World University Service’ Tharunka (UNSW Student Newspaper), 30 August 1963.    

Jennett, Christine 1989. ‘Signals to South Africa: the Australian Anti-apartheid movement’, in Politics of the Future: the Role of Social Movements, edited by Christine Jennett and Randal G. Stewart, Macmillan, South Melbourne.  

Kilby, Patrick (2014). NGOs and Political Change: A History of the Australian Council for International Development, ANU Press, Canberra.  

Mitchell, Barry (2015). ‘Action for World Development, from Charity to Justice’, in Breaking Out: Memories of Melbourne in the 70’s, edited by Sue Blackburn.  

Narsey, Wadan (2016). 1973 USP, YWCA RadicalismNarsey on Fiji Blog  

Noone, Brian (1973). Australian economic ties with South AfricaInternational Development Action, North Fitzroy.  

Nonyongo, E.P (1998), The South African Committee for Higher Education (SACHED) Trust, 

O’Dwyer, Brendan (2007). ‘True Fighter for Equality’ (obituary for Neville Curtis), Canberra Times, February 2007.  

Purdey, Jemma (2011), From Vienna to Yogyakarta: The life of Herb Feith, UNSW Press, Kensington,  

Ritchie, Jonathan (2020) From the Grassroots: Bernard Narakobi and the Making of Papua New Guinea’s Constitution, The Journal of Pacific History, 55:2, (235-254). 

Rokotuivuna, Amelia (1973), Fiji a Developing Australian Colony. (co-authored by, Jone Dakuvula, Wadan Narsey, Ian Howie, Peter Annear, David Mahony, Allison Fong, Claire Slatter, and Brian Noone). International Development Action, North Fitzroy, Victoria. 

Southall, Ivan (1965), Indonesia Face to Face: Lansdowne Press, Melbourne.  

‘WUS in Canberra’, Woroni, 4th June 1970,  

WUS Moving to Canberra’, The Canberra Times, 15th March 1970, p.8. 

Author profile
Helen Hill

With a long history of involvement in radical student and development causes within Australia and internationally, Dr. Helen Hill was involved with WUS Australia in its later period. She became involved with Timor Leste, with a Master’s thesis on the independence movement, Fretilin, and with the Pacific through her thesis on Nonformal Education and Development in three countries of the Pacific at the ANU Centre for Continuing Education. As a result of supporting Jose Ramos Horta’s Diplomatic Front at the UN for Timorese Self-determination she was banned from going to Timor for 24 years. She spent two years in Fiji at the Commonwealth Youth Program updating the Diploma Course on Youth and Development at the South Pacific Centre. Much of this became the basis for a new course she introduced at Victoria University a new university in Melbourne. During the UN transitional period to independence in Timor-Leste she was able to return there and assisted Timorese activists to establish a Department of Community Development at the National University. After retirement from Victoria University, she was invited by one of her Timorese former students (by then Minister of Education) to work in the Ministry and has been in Timor-Leste since 2014.