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Message from the Chair

25 Years of WUS Austria

Returning from a conference of the International World University Service (WUS) in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1982, my valued teacher and colleague Professor Dr. Konrad Ginther brought with him the idea of founding an Austrian committee of the World University Service. I gladly took over the implementation of this project. Through WUS, interested higher education teachers and students could take part in a world-wide network which was just as relevant in South Africa to those suffering under Apartheid as to those living under military dictatorships in Latin America, but also in Asia, Canada and Europe. The goals of the network were clear: to realize human rights in the context of education and to protect university autonomy. Every two years, the complete “WUS Family” from the South and the North would come together to meet and discuss current topics and future strategies in complete equality. WUS offered thousands of refugee-students the ability to proceed with their education well into the 1990s. With the democratization of Latin America and the end of Apartheid, these programs (funded mostly by the Swedish development agency SIDA) came to an end. The international office of WUS in Geneva lost its biggest financial supporter and its activities were suspended shortly afterwards.

As a side note, I should mention that the precursor organization to WUS - “European Student

Relief” – was founded in 1920 by an interreligious British initiative in order to provide for students and professors of the University of Vienna who found themselves in a desperate situation after World War I. The first Austrian WUS committee was founded after World War II, but it did not stay active for long.

The newly founded Austrian World University Service committee (WUS Austria) concentrated on legal aid programs in South Africa and the support of the militarily occupied universities in Latin America in the 1980s, but it also had contact with committees in India and Sri Lanka. Later, WUS Austria also ran post-graduate summer courses in Stadtschlaining and then at Makerere University in Kampala. In its activities, WUS Austria focused specifically on supporting the right to education for those suffering from politically motivated persecution and on furthering the autonomy of the universities. In this vein, the so-called Lima Declaration regarding freedom and autonomy in higher education was adopted by the 1988 WUS General Assembly. Manfred Nowak, who is still active as a board member of WUS Austria today, was the driving force behind this important step.

When the war in the Balkans began in 1991, the Austrian committee of WUS was one of the first to recognize responsibility in terms of protecting the right to education. First, WUS Austria set about trying to help the students who had fled Yugoslavia to Austria by establishing scholarship programs. Soon, however, programs were also started to support the students’ home universities. In the beginning, the university of the war-torn city of Sarajevo received much of the attention, but later other Bosnian universities, as well as the universities in Montegro and Prishtina and, after the fall of Milosevic, in Serbia, received aid. WUS Austria charged itself with providing urgently needed humanitarian aid and then rebuilding the necessary infrastructure. Later on, WUS was also involved with facilitating the return of professors and students, the reform of the curricula, the development of quality research and ensuring stronger practical orientation for higher education through links to the economy.

To accomplish these goals, WUS Austria set up an office at the University of Sarajevo in the autumn of 1994. Further offices in Banja Luka, Podgorica, Prishtina and Belgrade followed, but WUS Austria was also present through projects and contact persons in other countries, such as Macedonia. In Sarajevo and Banja Luka academic centres were built to offer students better access to opportunities of international mobility.

I will never forget the arrival of the bus full of pale and tired students and professors from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering in Sarajevo who came to the Technical University of Graz after their own laboratory equipment had gone missing in the summer of 1994. They returned with a large amount of material which had to be transported into the city via a tunnel under the airstrip, since, in the meantime, the lines of besiegement around Sarajevo had once again closed. Similarly, my first visit to the war-torn city of Sarajevo in autumn of 1994 remains unforgettable, when the former rector Faruk

Seleskovic and his wife Enisa received me like their son. There was a striking contrast between the unbelievable destruction we found there and the openness and generosity of the people who had been thrown together into this situation. And finally, I will always remember my visit to Kosovo in 1999 after WUS Austria, whose Prishtina office had been plundered during the NATO bombardments and been subsequently moved to Tetovo, could return. I also want to highlight the generosity of the then Austrian Minister of Education, who made a significant amount available for the employees of the University of Prishtina working at that time without any payment.

In a similar way, the Austrian Foreign Ministry, together with the DAAD and a Dutch partnership, financed the pay checks for university employees of Sarajevo, Tuzla and the Bosnian university in Mostar for an initial period.

Because of the massive human rights violations and the war, WUS Austria also supported several human rights centres, beginning with one in Sarajevo in 1996 and, in 2000, in Prishtina. These are active still today, connected as a network and contribute to solving ethnic conflicts.

The strengthening of the principles of sustainability and of ownership served as a motive for the foundation of a national WUS committee for Bosnia and Herzegovina which included all universities as well as the later co-foundation of WUS Romania. The principle was always to work with local staff as much as possible; only in Kosovo, at the beginning of the co-operation, this was not possible. In addition, young Austrians came to these offices as part of their civil service to contribute to peace-building and acquired language and intercultural competences along the way. Many of them are still very successful in this area today.

All of these activities would not have been possible without the institutions and the people who applied themselves to the cause so tirelessly. Chief among these I would like to thank the

University of Graz, where all the incumbent rectors always supported the activities of WUS Austria, as well as the Federal Ministry for Education, the Arts and Culture, the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research, the Foreign Ministry and, especially, the Austrian Development Agency (ADA) which finances a large part of WUS Austria’s projects in South-Eastern Europe.

I would also especially like to thank the former rector of the University of Graz, Helmut Konrad, who concluded the partnership agreement with the University of Sarajevo during his time as rector, and Barbara Weitgruber, soul and motor of the Task Force “Education and Youth” of the Stability Pact. She was always as active for educational cooperation with South-Eastern Europe as was the General Director of the Federal Ministry for Education, the Arts and Culture, Anton Dobart.

Today, our main partner at the University of Graz is Vice-Rector Roberta Maierhofer, who has developed the South-Eastern European focus of the university, to which WUS Austria has also made its contribution, into a world-renowned field of competence. In the background, there were people like Erhard Busek, the former Vice-Chancellor of Austria, who, with his understanding and good will, always encouraged us on our way.

Today, WUS Austria is a professional educational organization, which develops national and EU projects in South-Eastern Europe, and, in the future, perhaps also again in Africa and Latin America. As a result of its competence, WUS Austria often receives requests to become a partner in international consortia with universities and organizations. It has not been uncommon to learn that an Austrian university is only able to take part in such an activity because WUS Austria has shared its experience with the university. Invitations to become more active in cooperative projects with the economy have also increased over the past years.

That said, WUS Austria has never forgotten its initial goals including enhancing the situation for foreign students in Austria and increasing the internationalization of universities. Many of the original members of WUS are still active in this area. The activities of WUS Austria in the area of human rights were partly taken over by the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation in Graz, founded in 1999. Also here, the Human Right to Education, including the education on Human Rights, is given a central role.

Under the competent leadership of Adi Kovacevic (originally from Sarajevo) as director of WUS Austria, and through the efforts of his team, WUS Austria’s activities have continued to increase. A few flagship programs, such as the Balkan Case Challenge, have made WUS more visible to the public. While most other larger institutions have traditionally settled in Vienna, WUS Austria has notably maintained its main centre of operations in Graz, in the region of Styria – both of which have always provided their support to WUS Austria.

25 years is a long time and one could say much more about them. There are so many various experiences and perspectives worthy to be shared. Therefore, the idea of a very personal “Festschrift” was born, in which collaborators, partners and friends of WUS Austria can share their experiences and memories of WUS Austria. From this, a kaleidoscope of stories and impressions is created, which together give an insight into the variety and experience of WUS Austria. To conclude, I would like to thank all those who have contributed memories, thoughts and financial support to this work, spanning 25 years.

WOLFGANG BENEDEK, Chairman of WUS Austria,
Professor of International Law at the
University of Graz