By Laksiri Fernando –
World University Service (WUS) is celebrating its centennial in May 2020 in Vienna, organized by WUS Austria, WUS Germany, WUS Canada and WUS Alumni. The central theme of the conference is ‘Human Right to Quality Education for All’ also reflecting on WUS history, and the experiences of Alumni among other related matters. The importance of the theme is not limited to WUS community or committees, but to people at large in all countries from school teachers to university academics, from all students to education administrators, and from educational planners to civil society activists.
Importance of the Conference
The theme of the conference also related to and based on the UN declared Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, and more particularly on SDG4 on the Right to Quality Education with the objective of achieving it by 2030. But even after five years, many of the interim targets are not achieved by countries or lagging behind. The concepts, the purposes and objectives are also not properly understood or explained, and most importantly the mechanisms and necessary resources are not identified or utilized. Only ten years are left for the final targeted year.
Thus is the importance of the conference to possibly accelerate the process by motivating the policy planners and policy makers both at the international and national levels, and educate the people and particularly the children and youth on their universal human right to quality education. The conference is also a determination on the part of WUS community, committees and Alumni to make their own contributions to enhance the human right to quality education through projects, scholarships, activities and advocacy. In this respect, WUS aspires and intends to work with other international and national civil society organizations and call for all countries, the UN and donor organizations to support these efforts in the coming future.
The World University Service has always been a voluntary organization of academics, students and university administrators with the commitment to serve the society and people, particularly the poor, the vulnerable and the discriminated, while defending academic freedom and autonomy of universities and other higher educational institutions. WUS has always appreciated the contributions and funding from members, committees and donor agencies to undertake projects, activities, scholarships and advocacy. WUS is open to other likeminded civil society activists, and has always been working in cooperation with organizations with the objectives of justice, peace, reconciliation, anti-discrimination, solidarity, cooperation and human rights.
Some Lessons from History
Initiated by a group of academics and social workers led by Ruth Rouse in 1920 affiliated with the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF), aftermath of the First World War, the initial organization was named as the European Student Relief (ESR). In 1925, it was renamed as the International Student Relief (ISR) to reflect the international scope of its activities, and it is the same organization which become reorganized as the World University Service in 1950. By this time, the organization wanted to highlight the role of the university and academic communities (teachers, students and administrators) in society and particularly progressive social change. Since then WUS has pursued a strong advocacy role, as it is doing today, in respect of human rights, academic freedom and quality education and many other relevant social issues.
Further going back to the origins, the reason for the new organization in 1920 was not only to address the pressing humanitarian needs of students affected by the war in food, clothing, books, housing, health etc. but also to address them and assist the students irrespective of their religion or non-religion (Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Atheist), ideological affiliations (communists, liberals, anti-communists), country of origin or ethnicity/race. However, there was a particular attention to disadvantaged or discriminated sections of the society like women and the poor. In this sense, ESR or WUS was the first human rights organization in the world in a practical sense.
Those students who were assisted by ESR, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, not neglecting Asia Minor, were virtually refugees. It is ironic that WUS celebrating its centennial today at a time where there is a similar or a larger refugee crisis in Europe and other parts of the world. Therefore more action is called for on those lines and other related matters such as conflict resolution, peace and international cooperation.
Resurrecting WUS International
This article is only an introduction to the Conference Platform published by the organizers, explaining the conference theme and its rationale, the draft agenda, and giving contact details and other information, which is copied at the end of this article. As any other organisation, WUS has been going through very many trials and tribulations, ups and downs and controversial periods. However it has always survived, fought back and became resurrected. Last two decades have not been quite promising particularly to WUS International while some national committees have survived and even thrived as can be seen from the organizing committees.
There was a time when there were over 50 active national committees throughout the world. However, some of them are now defunct, inactive or functioning with difficulties particularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America. There are however many thousands living today who have benefitted from WUS assistance directly or indirectly for their education, employment, traning, survival and migration to safe countries. There is a duty on their part as Alumni to comeforward and contact the organizers of the conference and keep in touch, if they are not in a position to participate at the event. Most importantly, their financial contributions are equally appreciated.
WUS has always been in touch with and acted in cooperation with student unions and academic associations in different countries. These unions and associations also can benefit through such links and cooperation. Here is an important story for that objective.
It is known history that the forerunner of WUS, the European Student Relief was formerly established on 7 August 1920 at St. Beatenberg, Siwtzerland. Thereafter, it continued to function from Geneva. However less formal beginning started in Vienna, Austria, initiated by student unions and student activists, drwing the attention of WSCF office in London on their plight as a result of the war and then famine. For example, in December 1919, Herbert Petrick, a student leader/activist wrote to Ruth Rouse urging her to visit Vienna and see the famine and kindly address the situation. Herbert was angry about some of the other WSCF leaders, placing the confidence in a woman leader, Ruth Rouse. This story is thanks to Benjamin Hartley at the Goerge Fox University, Oregan who has done new research on ESR.
The reason to relate this story is not only to highlight the importance of having the 100 year celebrations in Vienna, but also to empahsise that student leaders in needy countries could and should write to the orgnizers of the Vienna conference or/and WUS and seek affiliation and cooperation. Most important is to form their WUS committess and organizations in their own countries.
Within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 – the right to quality education – the conference focuses on global challenges learners, educators and educational institutions, but also countries, economies and governments are facing when it comes to shrinking civic spaces in education, access to education for refugees, migrants and girls as well as access to inclusive and quality education for sustainable development (ESD) and global citizenship. The conference will address key areas such as innovation and quality assurance to achieve excellence, human rights and learning impact in situations of forced migration or how to maintain civic space in education, because we believe that they are necessary in making educational services work for all. Particular emphasis is given to youth perspectives and connecting those with the experience of senior educators and experts.
To this end, the event brings together experts and participants from different sectors and groups: educators and education designers, policy makers, experts from international agencies and civil society activists, persons from businesses, students from different backgrounds, and many more. We listen to what motivates and what worries the various stakeholders, respecting the different perspectives, and bringing actors together in transforming education in order to better equip persons to use education for their personal development and for society in general.
As we near the five-year mark of the SDGs, there is a need for the global community to take stock on our progress toward SDG 4, identify current gaps and opportunities, and discuss the roles and responsibilities that we all share in ensuring that all children and youth can enjoy their right to a quality education.
In this context, World University Service (WUS), together with the University of Vienna and the Austrian Ministry of Education, Science and Research as well as the Central European University (CEU) in Vienna will host a global conference on SDG4 and the Right to Quality Education: An Agenda for Action in Vienna, Austria in May 2020, focusing on global challenges of quality education in the context of vulnerable groups like refugees, academic freedom and education for sustainable development.
We will explore the roles of public and private actors, and emerging technologies and educational methodologies that together expand access and achieve better learning opportunities and outcomes for all – particularly for disadvantaged persons, displaced, poorly served and otherwise marginalised communities like girls education and refugee education, contributing also to the UNESCO World Conference on ESD in Berlin.
Who you will meet
Get together with representatives from international and national organisations as well as individuals working in the field of education from United Nations, Council of Europe, EU, governmental organisations, educational institutions, NGOs, and from the business sector. We want to especially provide opportunities for young people to come and join the conference!
Contact Details of the Organising Teams
WUS Austria | www.wus-austria.org
Wolfgang Benedek (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Maria Rottensteiner (email@example.com)
Veronika Nitsche (firstname.lastname@example.org)
WUS Canada | www.wusc.ca
Stephanie Leclair (email@example.com)
WUS Germany | www.wusgermany.de
Dr. Kambiz Ghawami (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr. Bettina Schmidt (email@example.com)
Cyril Ritchie (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Roger Roy (email@example.com)
Partners: University of Vienna, Central European University (CEU), Austrian Ministry of Education, Science and Research