Student solidarity across borders: Students, universities and refugee crises past and present

By Dr Georgina Brewis, Senior Lecturer in the History of Education at UCL Institute of Education, University College London.

The summer of 2015 has seen an unprecedented number of refugees fleeing from Syria to Europe, with many citizen-led initiatives filling the vacuum where government support has been found wanting. At the forefront of these volunteers have been student groups who, despite the summer vacation, were quick to act through a range of initiatives including student unions collecting food, clothing and other goods; involvement in the #refugeeswelcome social media campaign; or joining solidarity marches and signing petitions.

On 10 September 2015, the NUS National Executive Council passed an emergency motion in support of several of these schemes, whilst the charity Student Hubs is responding to overwhelming demand by producing an advice guide for students wishing to help refugees.

History & Policy’s latest policy paper Student Solidarity Across Borders: Students, Universities and Refugee Crises shows how, in many of the major refugee crises of the twentieth century – notably those fleeing Nazism in the 1930s, Hungary in 1956 and Chile after 1973 – special assistance for students formed a significant part of the overall aid provision, and asks whether or not a bold new programme of refugee student support could be made to work today?

Lessons from History

The First World War, which caused enormous disruption on European university life, brought the issue of student refugees into focus. In 1920, European Student Relief (ESR) was founded to send money, relief supplies and volunteers to help students and academics facing severe hardship across the ruined post-war universities of Central Europe. In particular, the ESR provided aid and support to the estimated 5,000 Russian refugee students leaving the Soviet Union to complete their studies elsewhere.

From 1933 onwards, the ESR – now renamed International Student Service (ISS) – became increasingly focused on refugees leaving Germany, whose own student movements had become increasingly right-wing and anti-Semitic. Many began to advocate a numerus clausus (restriction on Jewish students in the universities), isolating democratic, Jewish, liberal and socialist student groups and barring Jewish students from membership of the German students’ union (the Deutsche Studentenschaft). Between 1933 and 1936, around 7,000 students were expelled from German universities. Although many remained living in Germany, over 90% of those who emigrated turned to the ISS for help. This situation only worsened following the Austrian Anschluss with Germany in 1938 and the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Over this time, ISS assisted thousands of student exiles to find refuge in UK, France, Switzerland and Holland.

In England and Wales, the ISS set up an Advice and Relief Department in London, run by two paid staff members supported by student volunteers, to help rehabilitate, resettle and support over 1,000 refugee students from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia – this at a time when the UK’s entire student population numbered just 50,000 – and lobbied colleges and universities to secure student places for refugees, fund scholarships for ‘the most brilliant’ and identified au-pair positions for women students, in order to lower living costs. In 1939, the University of Liverpool secured six places for student refugees, with their tuition fees remitted by the University Senate. The ISS also worked with NUS and other groups to arrange hundreds of invitations for refugee students to spend their holidays in private homes across the UK.

However, not all initiatives during the 1930s were an unqualified success. In 1937, the University of Nottingham’s student paper judged its students’ low level of contributions to refugee aid to be a “dismal reflection on student apathy” and small, short-lived Fascist groups at several universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Armstrong College in Newcastle, Birmingham, Liverpool and Reading, all hindered relief efforts. However, as awareness grew of the Nazi policy towards the Jews, so did students’ sympathy for the refugees.

Towards the end of the Second World War, student activity focused predominantly on the provision of study materials to both Allied and Axis student prisoners of war, later widening to sending food supplies to students in occupied territories. In Britain, many student groups worked with the hundreds of student refugees who in May 1940 fell under the government’s new internment regulations and were transported to the Isle of Man, Australia or Canada – donating more than 100 tons of food aid to European students between autumn 1945 and spring 1947. In 1945, the ISS opened a “rest centre” in Chester, which housed over 300 student refugees, many of whom had been active in the Dutch Resistance or were survivors from Dachau and Ravensbruch concentration camps.

However, it was suppression of the Hungarian uprising of November 1956 that presented opportunities to help refugee students on an unprecedented scale. The Soviet actions caused what the University of London Union’s student paper described as “immediate revulsion throughout the student world”. Student groups across the UK staged protest and rallies, whilst students at UCL organised a petition of 1,256 signatures which it presented to the Soviet Ambassador and a march of 1,500 students past the Soviet Embassy.

There was also a significant effort in raising money to enable Hungarian refugees to study in British universities and colleges, with over 1,000 Hungarian students seeking assistance in Britain. Research at LSE in 1959 showed over 500 of these students were still studying in British universities and technical colleges.  These effort were later described by Sir John Lockwood, then Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, as “one of the most impressive acts of cooperation in the history of the universities of the UK.”

In September 1973, when General Pinochet’s coup overthrew the Allende government, UK students once again stepped up to the fore to help academic and student refugees. The ISS – now renamed as World University Service (WUS) – together with 60 UK universities and polytechnics were able to offer 100 scholarships to both postgraduate and undergraduate students. In 1974, the newly-elected Labour government gave funding to a much expanded programme, meaning that over a ten-year period around 900 Chileans were enabled to study in Britain. It is worth underlining here that, unlike earlier efforts for refugee students which largely relied on private fundraising and philanthropy, the Chilean programme was an important partnership between the voluntary sector and the state, with over £11 million channelled through the UK government’s Overseas Development Ministry – clearly showing the value of state backing for refugee scholarship schemes.

What can be done?

History has shown that student groups and HE institutions are often politically aware and are able to respond quickly to changing social needs. The refugee crisis of 2015 has not proven any different in this regard. H&P believes that the United Kingdom’s Higher Education sector, which currently comprises 161 institutions and over 2 million students, is particularly well placed to respond to the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War with a bold new aid programme.

It is worth noting that, whilst scholarships and student support do of course need financial commitments, empirical studies show that refugee students contribute both financially and in many other ways to their host countries, often building new lives themselves in that host country. Even more importantly, many will eventually return to help with economic and social reconstruction in the countries they left as refugee students, even if this is decades later.

In a letter published in The Times in October 2006, marking the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising, a group of former students reflected that ‘it is our hope that we have been able to repay some of the magnanimous support we received, during our working lives’. Indeed, it is this sense of being part of a cohort, often identified as an important factor for integration by refugees, that highlights the need for a sector-wide response, rather than a patchwork of provision by individual universities.

Dr Brewis, author of the report, explained: “I was moved to write this paper after seeing the news reports of thousands of refugees from Syria and elsewhere arriving in Europe over the summer. In previous refugee crises, special assistance for students formed part of overall humanitarian efforts, and those helped to complete their education have given back far more than they ever received in aid. Many students and student organisations are keen to help the refugees and it is my hope that this paper will provide useful insights from past experiences.”

About The Author: Dr Georgina Brewis is Senior Lecturer in the History of Education at UCL Institute of Education, University College London. She is a historian of education, youth and voluntary action and a founder of the Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives. She is the author of A Social History of Student Volunteering: Britain and Beyond, 1880-1980 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

About History and Policy: H&P is a unique collaboration between the Institute of Contemporary British History at King’s College London and the University of Cambridge. We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

This article is based upon Dr Brewis’ policy paper, Student Solidarity Across Borders: Students, Universities and Refugee Crises, which can be read in full at History & Policy’s website: