WUS in the development assistance days, 1964 – 78

The Australian Student Christian Movement (ASCM) was the most active sponsor of World University Service in Australia (WUSA), going back to the formation of European Student Relief (ESR) in 1920. When I started at the University of Sydney in 1961, the resident SCM Secretary, Rosalie McCutcheon, was a veteran of World Student Relief, assisting refugees from war-torn Europe to return to study or professional employment. She then worked with overseas students, especially Colombo Plan students. An active practitioner of the social gospel, Rosalie encouraged the Sydney SCM to become involved in other campus organisations, of which WUS was one. 

I became an SCM representative on the local WUS committee in 1964. In addition to fundraising through the annual WUS Day at ASCM conferences, a major activity was the annual Miss University contest, until its downfall as second-wave feminism grew. Fudn-raising was a major committee activity. When I moved to post-graduate study at Monash University in Melbourne in 1965, the WUS secretary, Mamie Smith, was familiar from ASCM conferences, and I happily spent most Fridays at the WUS office assisting her. I also developed contacts with the National Union of Australian University Students (NUAUS), another WUS sponsor and a lively, often critical participant.   

Robin Burns WUS Australia

In the 1960s second tier universities were springing up, nearly all in the state capital cities. A major task for the two WUS staff (Brendan O’Dwyer had joined Mamie) was trying to secure continuity in local WUS groups. Mamie, a journalist by training, had a personal interest in South Africa and was keen for WUS to spread information about the apartheid system and black education. With Brendan’s arrival, development education was added to our local activity.  

The national committee dealt with routine matters and organisation of the annual general assemblies. We were more concerned for local committee survival and fundraising than any particular project(s) in the international Program of Action, with the exception of South African scholarships. However, as the ‘winds of change’ swept the colonial world, development became central and both WUSA and NUAUS were increasingly interested in Australia’s role in neighbouring Papua and New Guinea (PNG), then still an Australian dependency. My own interest was sparked in 1963-4 when during a visit to remote Kar Kar Island, I participated as a poll clerk in the first general election for the new House of Assembly, the precursor to internal self-government in 1973.  

Papua New Guinea WUSBUS

Informal WUSA contacts with PNG began in 1961. As the conservative Australian government reluctantly began preparations for ‘eventual’ independence, a university was opened in the capital, Port Moresby, in 1965. In 1966 the University was included in the international WUS Programme of Action with a small grant used for textbooks and equipment. The international recognition alleviated the WUSA concern about the asymmetry of bilateral relations with Australia. Five other tertiary institutions were scattered around the small city, which lacked public transport. WUSA raised money for a small bus to enable students to meet across campuses. One of my students, Peter Drummond, obtained finance to produce the film “The Broken Silence” which followed a student from a Highland village to university and featured the WUS bus. It was launched in Melbourne and Port Moresby in 1968. NUAUS was also interested in PNG, holding village workcamps for Australian students in the summer vacations. WUSA planned a summer school for PNG students in 1965-6 but when I arrived in Port Moresby to oversee it, it had been cancelled. The reasons were complex, involving local administration concern at the ‘fraternising’ engaged in by Australian and local students, despite supportive university staff. Early members of the PNG WUS committee went on to become national politicians in the heady days after independence (1975).  

WUSA also became involved, together with NUAUS, with placing refugee Czech students after 1968.  

My engagement with international WUS began in 1966 as one of two Australian delegates to the general assembly in Dar-es-Salaam, one of just six female delegates. It was thrilling to hear President Julius Nyerere attend the assembly, and open the symposium on “The university’s role in the development of the Third World” which highlighted the responsibilities of students, privileged by their education. I saw this in practice two years later visiting WUS projects in Indonesia and The Philippines.

Philippines Project LINA: Lidia, Dr Tanchoco, Ruth, at Robin’s farewell dinner

In addition to the 1966 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.   

I attended the 1968 (Leysin), 1970 (Madras), 1972 (Ibadan, where I was elected to the executive committee), 1974 (Munich) and 1978 (Sri Lanka) general assemblies, though WUSA folded in the 1970s. Most memorable were visits to WUS projects in Indonesia (1968, 1973) and The Philippines (1968, 1977). 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.     

Assemblies were fraught, with intense politicking for national/regional representation on the international executive committee and 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 welcomed me into the Asian group. “You’re one of us!” How good that was.

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

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, 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. 

In 1974 WUSI signed a contract 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. Nathan asked me to undertake it: 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. WUS involvement had led me to comparative education, after a brief 3 years in the diplomatic service. I was encouraged to join it to work in their development assistance section but as a woman was only sent to postings in 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 3 months, the Desert Ecological Research Unit in Namibia, an archaeological expedition to Uzbekistan and a conservation expedition to the Altai Republic in Siberia. WUS opened my eyes to the world and they remain open.

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.