WUS UK History

Origins of WUS

The World University Service (WUS) and WUS (UK) has its roots in European Student Relief (ESF), an autonomous sub-section of the World’s Student Christian Federation which was established in 1920 to meet urgent material needs among university students caused by the First World War. Donald Grant, a British Quaker, was a founder of ESF and its first General Secretary. He, with colleagues in the UK, played a leading role in the post war feeding and rehabilitation of students in Europe In 1926 ESF developed into the independent organisation International Student Service (ISS), based in Geneva. ISS’s work during the inter-war period included provision of aid following an earthquake in Bulgaria and during the Sino-Japanese War, and aid for refugees from universities in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. During the Second World War ISS established a war emergency relief committee – European Student Relief Fund (later World Student Relief) – in collaboration with the World’s Student Christian Federation and Pax Romana. This fund continued to operate until 1950.

WUS (UK), then ISS UK, played the leading role in convening the ISS Cambridge conference in 1946 which led to initiatives to support students in Germany and Austria, encouraging international engagement and resisting any resurgence of Nazism. In December 1950 the General Assembly of the International Student Service adopted a new title – World University Service (WUS). The new organisation would combine the former functions and activities of ISS and World Student Relief. WUS UK was formed playing a leading role in the global movement in the subsequent decades. More on this is found in the publication 50 years of WUS.

WUS UK Historical Activities

Sir Robert Birley, (President WUS UK) Lady Birley, Donald Grant, ( the founder of European Student Relief)
Alan Phillips (back) at WUS (UK) 1980 AGM

Significant aid and scholarship projects administered by WUS included assistance for Hungarian students after 1956 and Czechoslovakian students after 1968; a scholarship programme for Chileans, who had their studies interrupted by the 1973 coup and were in danger; and scholarship programmes for Ugandan, Ethiopian and Vietnamese students in the UK. In the 1970s WUS funded over 500 black students a year at the University of Rhodesia [Zimbabwe] before independence. During this time WUS acted as a pressure group on overseas student fees, refugee students, against apartheid and latterly on human rights and development. WUS also ran numerous other projects and programmes, both internationally and within Britain. The international programmes aimed to develop and support education initiatives in developing countries and improve literacy amongst women. The UK programmes provided education and training to refugees in Britain, enabling many refugees to return to contribute to development once it was safe to do so.

WUS UK in the 1970s


This is a brief description of the work of WUS (UK) in the nineteen seventies. It was written when the pandemic restrictions made the WUS (UK) archives, held in the Warwick University Modern Records Centre, inaccessible. Consequently, this account of WUS (UK) is confined to the decade 1971-1980 drawing upon Annual Reports held in personal records. Since writing this article, these annual reports are held in a digital archive online.

As part of the centenary celebrations of the work of WUS globally, those who worked for WUS have been invited to contribute their own reflections on their work and the impact it has had on their personal lives. There have been sixteen contributions from staff working for WUS UK between 1970 and 1980s. These should be read alongside this article to give a richer understanding of the valuable work that was done and the insights of those involved. 

Longstanding reputation

At the beginning of the 1970s, WUS(UK) had a good reputation throughout universities for the assistance it had given to refugee students in the UK. It had administered a substantial programme for Hungarian Students after 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary. Similarly, in 1968, WUS had established a major Czechoslovak student scholarship fund to support Czech students in the UK following the Warsaw Pact invasion that ended the Prague Spring. The final year that grants were given was 1972 when 22 students were supported with UK government funding. 

UK WUS Office 1970-6, at 260 High Road, Tottenham, London with more recently added ground floor coffee shop

WUS UK was a small university-based organisation governed by an annual council primarily of students from University WUS committees that delegated its functions to an executive committee of students and academics. It had three full time staff and four part time staff housed in a small office in High Road Tottenham, a poor but multi-ethnic area of London.  The role of the staff had two main objectives, the first was to support and encourage anti-discrimination and development education activities in colleges, universities and polytechnics. The second objective was to manage scholarship programmes for impoverished students. The income was modest, just under £50,000 in 1972, with a significant element of funding received from local WUS committees and Quaker trusts. Barbara How was its Chairman, she was one of many committed volunteers who strongly supported WUS and its work. Barbara How died in 2004 and left a six figure sum to WUS UK.

Barbara How – Chairperson 1971-1975

WUS Constituency 

Local WUS committees brought together students who were primarily in the Universities of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. They played a progressive role in promoting development education and opposing apartheid, while welcoming overseas students and raising funds for refugees.  They often worked hard as volunteers to run second-hand bookshops, to promote and sell Trade Craft goods from the south and coaches for students to fund WUS International (WUSI) projects and campaign staff.  Some of the most active committees were in Scotland and Wales, while students in some Oxford and Cambridge colleges funded refugee and black South African scholarships. All university WUS committees campaigned on international issues, including ending apartheid and support for refugee students, while some Committees still had close links with the Student Christian Movement which was one of the original founders of WUS UK.   

A demonstration for Medical aid to Vietnam 1973 organised by Bristol WUS

The WUS constituency’s commitment to social justice gave a youthful dynamism to the organisation reflective of the major social changes of the 1960s. This was reflected in the three-day annual conference that in the 1970s attracted government ministers, the President of the National Union of Students (NUS), the educational representatives of Southern African liberation movements, and a wide range of interesting speakers including BBC Reith Lecturers. There was a range of workshops looking at key issues of development, refugee reception and resettlement and ways of combatting discrimination, including combatting indirect discrimination of women in education. 

Small grants and Loans 

The WUS Office also ran a small fund for needy students giving about 50 small grants and loans a year. It meant that it had a wide network of contacts in Universities particularly among Registrars who knew that WUS might support hardship cases, while it also had good relations with a number of charitable trusts and Ministry of Education officials. Following the expulsion by Idi Amin of Ugandan Asian British passport holders to the UK in 1972, WUS was funded by the Ugandan Resettlement Board to offer an advisory and placement service for over 300 Ugandan Asians who were expelled from Uganda to the UK .  WUS itself raised funds for 15 Ugandan Asian students who were excluded from this scheme. 

Throughout the 1970s, WUS (UK) continued to administer this grants fund and added small targeted scholarship programmes for Kurdish and 22 Indo Chinese refugee students, the latter attracting Overseas Development Ministry (ODM) funding. Its experience of administering scholarships and its anti-apartheid work led to it being invited to become the coordinating agency for the committee for Southern African Scholarships. In this role, WUS helped to identify suitable black Southern African candidates for scholarships funded and administered by Universities and Colleges. At the end of the decade, WUSI provided funds for WUS UK to award 10 scholarships to southern African refugee students to study in the UK. 

UK WUS Staff, 1976

Chilean Refugee Students  

In September 1973, a military coup took place in Chile with the ending of the only democratically elected government in Latin America. WUS (UK) was approached by Academics for Chile (AFC) to support Chilean academics and post graduate students stranded in the UK. This was a small, informal group of committed academics who had worked in Chile, led by Alan Angell. They knew of WUS UK’s good reputation in universities for supporting refugee students primarily from Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). WUS (UK) decided to take on this challenge and involved the AFC in a fundraising campaign. Within 4 months WUS, with its local constituency, fundraising from trusts and the support of the AFC, had raised £39,000. This was valuable in its own right, but it reinforced a WUS led campaign on campuses to persuade the new Labour government to fund a wider WUS scholarship programme for Chilean refugees. The aid minister, Judith Hart, was highly supportive of proposals by WUS, supported by ACF, but there was very considerable resistance in the Home Office, and the Foreign Office, whose support was essential. Many meetings and conversations were held with officials and advisers. WUS charitable status and reputation ensured that it was able to overcome the opposition to the programme and, for the first time, an NGO received substantial funding from the British Aid programme. 

Chilean refugees enjoying cultural events at the Latin America Centre London, sponsored and supported by WUS and its staff

Eventually in July 1974 WUS was allocated a grant of £175,000 by the Overseas Development Administration (ODA). Early on, WUS was able to persuade the ODA to fund those who had their studies interrupted in Chile and who were in prison or still in danger in Chile. However, it was highly challenging to establish such a programme across continents, in hostile environments and without the internet, requiring innovative, complex programming, a range of trusted local partners and great attention to detail to ensure that in practice lives were saved and students could be educated safely and successfully in the UK.  

WUS had to recruit and train a team of young committed but inexperienced staff, find office space, create rigorous financial control and reporting systems as well as developing an effective awards, placement, and reception system as quickly as possible. In addition, ODM funding was approved yearly close to the start of academic year, reducing the time available for refugees to have the necessary psychological adjustment from escaping from danger to living in British society. Furthermore, there was little time for the much-needed English language training. Additionally, at the outset there were major delays in processing visas by ministries that were hostile to the programme and continuous dialogue was required with immigration officials and sometimes ministerial pressure was needed. 

Although this was a highly political environment, as a charity and a recipient of charitable and government funding, WUS could not be party political. The development of an excellent set of awards committees, led by the inspirational and highly effective chairperson (Dudley Seers), alongside the engagement of good officials, academic and development expertise was crucial. A year later this protected the programme from the dismissal of the aid minster Judith Hart in 1975. Despite the change in minister, the second and subsequent annual grants were awarded. By 1976, new awards were given to Chilean refugee students in the UK and, in due course, WUS awarded 900 scholarships, to 294 women (33%) and 606 men (66%) based on their needs and the potential development contribution of the course and not by funding constraints. As this was a development programme, in 1977 a Reorientation programme was established to enable those who completed their courses to work in developing countries. In the 1980s a significant number of award holders returned to Chile and by the 1990s the majority of award holders had returned to help rebuild Chilean democracy. 


Ugandan Refugee Students 

In 1976 WUS was approached to support Ugandan students studying in the UK, as once again many of them had had their funding cut off by a dictatorship. WUS UK formed an awards committee chaired by Sir Geoffrey Wilson, another distinguished developmentalist, and made 75 awards to students enrolled on development related courses. WUS was able to develop the programme in 1978 with the support of the ODM to include funding Ugandan students currently in Africa: 15 awards were made for studies in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, though the majority were for students to come to the UK and be placed in British Universities. WUS was able to learn from its Chilean refugee scholarship programme and establish a programme to receive applications speedily, assist with course placements, make awards, arrange visas- which again was problematic-, organise  transport, receive students sometimes with their families and assist in local reception arrangements. At the time that Idi Amin’s regime fell in spring 1979, 185 students were studying under the WUS UK scholarship programme. Between 1977 and 1979 WUS provided 268 scholarships to Ugandan students, while the last student was due to complete their course in 1984.  

WUS UK General Secretary ( right) at African refugee programming meeting

It was agreed that the training programme established by WUS should continue, with new awards granted until traditional programmes of intergovernmental technical assistance were in place. The ODM understood that the reconstruction of Uganda would be a long process requiring well trained Ugandans. It was also recognised that WUS could play a valuable role in the reconstruction of Uganda through a programme to help award holders return to Uganda when they completed their studies.

Ugandan Refugee students supported by WUS UK planning their safe return

A set of conferences and seminars was organised in cooperation with the Ugandan High Commission, while WUS also provided information and legal advice both through publishing a regular Uganda Information Bulletin and direct advice to award holders. A small office was established in Kenya led by the first Ugandan woman graduate.  

Ethiopian Refugee Students 

In 1978 WUS began its Ethiopian refugee Scholarship Programme to assist Ethiopian students who were left without funding following the civil war within Ethiopia. The programme was funded by the ODM, and an awards committee was set up chaired by the distinguished African scholar Professor Roland Oliver. It was initially limited to Ethiopian students who were already in the UK and were following development related courses. Some grants were given to more mature postgraduate students whose funding had stopped, some to undergraduates and significant numbers of students were given funding to study at a lower academic level.  

In 1979, the scheme was extended to Ethiopian refugees in Africa to study either in the UK or at an African university. It became increasingly difficult for refugee students to come to the UK for studies particularly if they planned to work in Africa to benefit the development of the region. Those with asylum in Africa were educated either in their first country of asylum or elsewhere in the region. This pioneered an important new approach for WUS UK and of the 248 refugee students it supported, 86 studied in Africa. Of those 248 refugee students, only 40 were women (16%), largely caused by the low participation of women in universities in Ethiopia and the initial requirement of the ODM that the programme should focus on postgraduate students, many of whom were already on courses in the UK. It also led to WUS UK looking at ways to address the imbalance of women in its African refugee scholarship programming. 

Women Refugee students  

In the late 1970s WUS UK highlighted the impact of repression and the situation of women refugees in different countries in its campaigns and newsletters. Pioneering efforts were made to increase the number of women award holders across all programmes through more flexible schemes, such as offering grants for shorter or part-time courses. In due course WUS (UK) went on to undertake important work on Women’s right to education in 1980s. 

Women’s right to Learn, WUS UK education programme

Reorientation and Returns 

All of WUS refugee scholarship programmes were designed to give individuals and families the right to become integrated in British society, but also they also provided the opportunity for them to return to their country when the situation permitted so that they could contribute towards its development. WUS broke new ground by establishing a Reorientation Unit. Its role was to work with Chilean refugees to explore the possibility of their employment in developing countries, primarily in Latin America, and when appropriate to find employment in Chile. Many workshops were organised with Chilean refugees, working groups were set up, studies were commissioned, and visits were made to Latin America. There were complex legal, economic and political problems that affected their ability to work in developing countries or in Chile but over the next two decades a large majority of Chilean refugee graduates were able to return to Chile, some returned as the dictatorship became less oppressive but most returned when democracy returned in the 1990s.  

Workshops were held for Chilean refugees to establish academic working groups on subjects that would be relevant to Chile’s development and on the role of women in the liberation of Latin America. The issue facing women, with the different roles in society in Chile and the UK, presented many challenges that benefitted from the solidarity of women’s groups meeting and supporting each other. 

Sometimes refugees returning to Chile were putting themselves at risk, there were immensely difficult decisions to be taken about families and their safety. It should not be forgotten that WUS staff themselves often took considerable risks travelling and working in the Southern Cone or in the conflict areas of Eastern and Southern Africa. 

UK WUS News: Role of Women in the liberation of Latin America

Similar principles on reorientation and return applied to Ugandan and Ethiopian students, many of whom were committed to the successful development of their country and a desire to return. With the fall of Idi Amin’s despotic regime in April 1979, the emphasis of the WUS programme changed from assisting new students to assistance to award holders who wanted to return to Uganda after their studies. A regular newsletter was shared with students, a conference was held with all past and present students and close cooperation was established with the Ugandan High Commission in London. Support was given to the many students who wanted to return and participate in their country’s development. 

A Study in Exile – Chile

Southern Africa 

WUS (UK) worked closely with WUSI to help fund the South African Committee for Higher Education (SACHED) and its work in the township of Soweto to overcome apartheid through night classes and distance education programmes for black student. These projects were funded both by UK based Quaker foundations and by local student based WUS Committees which was accompanied by university campaigns against Apartheid. The detail of SACHED’s crucial work is shown elsewhere in this publication. 

WUS UK was able to negotiate substantial funding from the British Government to support WUS (Zimbabwe) and the International Secretariat develop the University scholarship programme for impoverished black students. The University of Salisbury Rhodesia was a college of the University of London and, in principle there was no racial bar on who could attend the university with students being selected on the A level results. In practice, this was very different. Black secondary school students could attend boarding school and many achieved excellent academic results and were eligible for University studies. The fees were in general affordable for white parents but the fees were unaffordable for almost all black parents. Consequently, external funding by WUS had a radical affect on the University. Although the politics were challenging with tight international financial sanctions on the “illegal” and undemocratic white government and although the administrative procedures required by the ODM were complex, from 1975 WUS UK funded 664 and WUSI funded 278 black students at the University of Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe, transforming the campus from a 90% white to a majority black student body. WUS UK also published and disseminated an important statement by black staff in 1978, “The University of Rhodesia and Constitutional change”. 

Rhodesian Students supported by WUS

With the encouragement of the Zimbabwean African National Union – Patriotic Front ZANU PF, the main liberation movement, that was to become the heart of the first Independent Zimbabwe government in 1980, WUS (UK) also supported a small emergency programme for 30 black Zimbabwean students in the UK in 1979. It later offered advice and assistance to many Zimbabwean students who wanted to return to help Zimbabwean development following its independence in 1980. 

Institutional changes 

The substantial funding that WUS UK brought in was used to strengthen the organisation rather than enrich the staff. It was able to move out of its inadequate, small office at 260 High Road Tottenham and buy a fine rundown building at 20-21 Compton Terrace in Highbury that it renovated and by 1980 was worth £600,000. In the days before computers it had developed a sophisticated but transparent accounting and reporting system that met the highest reporting standards of government that demanded comprehensive quarterly reports before funds were released. 

WUS had developed a complex and rigorous system for awarding scholarships to refugee students, effective central and local reception arrangement, a participatory system to maintain relationships with students during their course and support to enable them to successfully complete their studies and advice on employment. WUS strengthened its Field staff and outreach on campus and supported student campaigns to fund South African and refugee scholarship programmes. Most importantly, it had several teams of committed, capable and experienced staff with practical experience of human rights and development issues. 

WUS was also able to ensure that the prestigious Society for the Protection of Learning (SPSL) that had done so much to assist German Jewish refugees continued its work when its Secretary retired. WUS signed a “compact“, this enabled it to operate independently in UK WUS’s office in the capable hands of Liz Fraser, who had helped establish the Chilean refugee scholarship programme. Their valuable work still continues today under the name of the Council for At Risk Academics (CARA). 


In 1978 the outgoing Labour government had increased overseas student fees by 35%, while the new Conservative government in 1979 announced its intention to introduce full-cost fees. WUS openly condemned this as a retrograde step but went further than this by campaigning for a reduction in university fees for students from the poorest countries, following the publication of its own research, “British Aid for Overseas Students?”. This report showed the disproportional impact of the full cost fee policy upon students from the poorest countries and the additional cost to the UK Aid programme. Its report to the Parliamentary select committee was praised and led to some reduction in fees by some universities but did not change the policy. 

Throughout the 1970s, the UK government, through the British Aid programme, had financed ad hoc scholarship programmes developed by WUS for certain refugee students e.g. students from Chile, Indo China, Uganda, Ethiopia. However, there were many other groups that WUS sought funds for that the British Government did not support e.g. students from Argentina, Kurdistan and South Africa, inter alia. WUS launched a campaign in 1977 for the right of refugee students to receive grants (from local authorities without waiting for 3 years residence), and legislation was supported by the Labour government which was finally enacted by the Conservative government in 1980. It meant that the ODM would no longer fund new undergraduate and postgraduate scholarship programmes for refugees already in the UK. WUS had succeeded in making some of its work unnecessary. 

Jean Heidler (UNHCR Rep, Nigel Twose (WUS), Shirley Williams ( Secretary of State Education), Alan Phillips (WUS) at press launch of refugee scholarship campaign in 1977

In 1973, WUS’s weakness was its strength as it could afford to take risks and be flexible. It the late 1970s its strength became in one area an institutional weakness as one of its major areas of funding would end. 

During the 1970s, WUS UK had built up detailed experience of the inadequate centralised reception and resettlement arrangements for Chilean refugees and then Uganda and Ethiopian refugees. WUS helped to overcome these with alternative arrangements but WUS recognised that only the outstanding ad hoc work by the newly created Joint Working Group for Chilean Refugees and local activists saved the day. WUS’s practical experience and resources put it in a strong position to influence other agencies. It lobbied many organisations including Oxfam, Christian Aid and even the Home Office on the inadequacy of the arrangement, which led to the closure of the British Council for the Aid to Refugees and the creation of the British Refugee Council in 1981 with a wider mandate and a more relevant approach.

International WUS

1978 Colombo Assembly Plenary

WUS UK was a strong supporter of WUS International and its Secretariat. In the period under consideration, WUS UK participated in the biennial international assemblies held in Ibadan Nigeria 1972, Munich Germany 1974, Manila the Philippines 1976, Columbo Sri Lanka 1978 and Nicaragua 1980. Its former Chairman, Iain Wright, was elected International President between 1978-80, and the General Secretary was invited to the Executive committee meetings in Geneva. Both cooperated on the Chile Reorientation programme and had a very good working relationship on programmes in Southern African and in particular on scholarship programmes in Zimbabwe. Good relations were created with other national committees including visits and a speaker tour by the General Secretary to WUS Canada. 

WUS UK Annual Report cover

In the 1979 WUS (UK) annual report, it was stated: 

 “The last five years have been a period of remarkable growth. The number of scholarships awarded grew (in UK) from 94 to 700; our income increased from £150,00 to £ 3million; the staff increased from 13 to 45 and 76 colleges (and Universities) have affiliated to WUS UK. Much of this growth reflects the increasing concerns about human rights and refugees internationally, and the past expansion of the British Aid programme. It is unlikely that this growth will continue, and this may give WUS an opportunity to evaluate programmes in depth and as an impetus to diversity our fundraising.” 

Concluding remarks 

Although WUS UK had time to regroup it needed to be innovative in developing a new strategy and different fundable programmes to tackle discrimination and injustice with partners in the UK and in the wider world. It did respond effectively as important work on education for refugees and women’s rights continued for more than a quarter of a century. Following the demise of WUS International and the closing of its office in Geneva in 1995, the work continued in the UK with a change of name to Education Action International in 2002. Despite a six-figure bequest in 2005 from Barbara How, the chairperson from 1971-5, WUS (UK) ran into severe financial difficulties and was closed down by 2008. Sarah Hayward (who sadly died in 2017), Liz Frazer and Alan Phillips were able to save and archive some of the records and a few of the publications at Warwick University but sadly many important documents, including the bound minute books have been lost. Fortunately, the records that remain have already been useful for a research project led by Professor Ribiero de Menezes (2016-19) on the WUS (UK) Chilean Refugee Scholarship programme that was enriched by many cultural activities with former Chilean award holders and the production of a video.

Another interlinked project was on memorabilia from Chilean refugees who had been imprisoned was called “crafting resistance” and can be found online.  

A number of people from WUS UK were honoured since the turn of the century by the Chilean President for their work with Chilean refugees and some were honoured by the Queen for decades of work on human rights. 

WUS UK Contributors 

16 members of WUS UK staff and several Council members contributed significantly to the work of WUS international in the 1970s and 1980s and also to the Centenary publication. The personal contributions of John King, Pauline Alvarez-Martin, Liz Fraser, Marilyn Thomson, John Bevan and Alan Angell are found in the chapter on Chile and beyond in Latin America. The contributions of Sarah Buxton, Tony Dykes, Louse Morris and Tina Wallace can be found in the chapter on Africa. Those of Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith and Bridget Walker are under Women, while other contributions of Alan Phillips, Nigel Twose, David Souter and David Bull follow this article.


A wide range of publications were produced during this decade some of which are held in the archive at Warwick University. These include: 

  • Annual Reports 1971-1980 
  • WUS News (termly publication) 1971- 1980 
  • Education for Refugees 1977 
  • Einstein was a Refugee 1977 
  • Chile, Argentina and Uruguay- an outline of conditions in 1977 
  • The University of Rhodesia and Constitutional Change- a statement by black staff 1978 
  • Third World political Refugees in the UK (with IDS) 1978 
  • Bienestar, Salud, Educacion 1978 
  • Chile – the rule of the Chicago boys 1978 
  • Working in Britain 1979 
  • WUS Chile Coordination Bulletins 1978,1979, 1979 [1979, 2 editions] 
  • Is the Return of Chilean Exiles Possible? 1979 
  • British Aid for Overseas Student?   1980 
  • Farmers and Students-Education for Development in Rwanda 1980 
  • A Handbook for Refugees in the UK  1980 
  • Loss of Fear- education in Nicaragua 1980 
  • Uganda Information Bulletin 1979, 1980, 1980 [2 editions] 

WUS 1981 onwards

The large majority of the WUS UK annual reports from 1981 onwards are held in the WUS digital archive. These became accessible in 2021. The intention is to invite someone to review these and write a history from 1981 until 2008 when WUS UK, that had become Education Action International, was closed down.

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.