Policy Papers

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

Georgina Brewis |

Executive Summary

  • The refugee crisis unfolding in Europe poses difficult questions of how to integrate the newcomers.  One key avenue will be offering university education to refugees; history suggests the pitfalls and opportunities facing both universities and students.
  • In many of the major refugee crises of the twentieth century, special assistance for refugee students has formed part of the overall aid provision.
  • University students form a highly skilled and motivated group of refugees which has historically given back to receiving societies much more than they have received in aid.
  • Student refugees have made considerable contributions to the British economy, academia, science, culture and the arts as well as to society more generally, and often to their own countries upon their return.
  • Historically, students and student organisations in the UK have been at the forefront of schemes to aid refugees and educate others about their plight, albeit with varying levels of commitment and success.
  • Personal contacts between UK students and refugee students has been of significant benefit to both groups, but this needs careful planning to ensure refugees are not seen as ‘curiosities’ on campus.
  • Voluntary organisations working in partnership with government have leveraged greater support for student refugees than philanthropic efforts alone.
  • Student organisations that want to make a real difference in the current refugee crisis should consider focusing on targeted support for refugee students.  A sector-wide response will work better than a patchwork of separate scholarship programmes.


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.  Could a bold new programme of refugee student support could be made to work today?

In summer 2015 public sympathy with refugees and migrants and growing frustration at the UK government response to the crisis resulted in an outpouring of citizen-led aid initiatives. Several newspapers published lists of practical actions individuals could take to help refugees, and new organisations such as CalAid were founded to collect supplies for refugee camps. As in previous refugee crises, and despite the summer vacation, student groups were quick to act through a range of initiatives including student union’s collecting food, clothing and other goods; involvement in the #refugeeswelcome social media campaign; or joining solidarity marches and signing petitions. The National Union of Students (NUS) NEC passed an emergency motion on 10 September 2015 supporting several of these schemes. Following many enquiries from students seeking advice on how best to help refugees, the charity Student Hubs has published an advice guide in October.  

However, there have been few calls to date for specialist assistance for student refugees, although as the new academic year gets underway there are signs this is beginning to change. The University of East London (UEL) led the way in early September 2015 when it announced would grant ten fees-only scholarships to Syrian postgraduate students, and a growing number of other universities including Glasgow, Sussex, Warwick, SOAS and LSE are now developing their own scholarship programmes. Other universities already offer fee waiver schemes, working with groups like Article 26 to offer access to higher education for refugees and asylum seekers already in the country. There are hopeful signs that the ongoing campaign for ‘equal access’ to higher education led by STAR (Student Action for Refugees) in partnership with NUS and others could be strengthened. Currently people waiting for a decision on asylum applications or granted discretionary leave to remain are charged international fees and have no access to student finance, preventing most from entering higher education. However, a ruling by the Supreme Court in July 2015 that a Zambian national with discretionary leave to remain, who had been living and educated in the UK since the age of six, was eligible to apply for a student loan has opened the door to further reforms; a public consultation on the topic is soon to be launched by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. However, such limited changes are unlikely to of benefit to those refugee students who currently fleeing from Syria and elsewhere.

These moves fall far short of some of the initiatives of the past.  There has been no high-profile call for a bold new scholarship programme for refugee students. In mid-September Citizens UK in partnership with the Campaign for the Public University launched a petition calling on all UK Vice-Chancellors to provide bursaries and scholarships for refugee students and academics, arguing ‘the time is right for a sector-wide response and a public commitment’. Although representing only a small minority of all refugees, university students form a highly skilled and motivated cohort which has historically given back to receiving societies much more than they have received in aid. Moreover, refugee students in the past have benefited from being part of a cohort and there is danger that students will be isolated if a patchwork of individual scholarship programmes is allowed to develop. Many working in civil society, the university sector or government today will have only limited awareness of previous programmes in the UK to aid refugee students. This paper explores past models and possible sources of inspiration.

European Student Relief to International Student Service

Since the enormous disruption to university life during and at the end of the First World War, student refugees have formed a particular area of concern for student organisations in the UK and elsewhere. European Student Relief (ESR) was formed in 1920 as an offshoot of the World's Student Christian Federation (WSCF) to send money, relief supplies and volunteers to help students and academics facing severe hardship - and often famine conditions – across the ruined post-war universities of central Europe. National committees in the UK, USA and elsewhere channelled aid through the ESR headquarters in Geneva. One important field of work was in providing aid to thousands of Russian refugee students who were leaving the Soviet Union to continue their studies elsewhere, notably in France. Appeals to British students' ‘friendship and plain humanitarian sympathy’ for the 5,000 Russian refugee students in Europe continued throughout the 1920s. Indeed, relief and reconstruction were important forces around which an incipient international student movement coalesced. These experiences meant that it was unsurprising that, in 1933, the newly-created High Commission for Refugees coming from Germany turned to the ESR – now renamed International Student Service (ISS) – for assistance. The Commission asked ISS to accept responsibility for student refugees. By 1934 around 1,700 students were counted in the total of 10,000-11,000 so-called ‘intellectual refugees’ and their family members who had already fled Nazi Germany.

In 1935 Albert Einstein noted that help for students ‘who have not yet made their names in the world is the most difficult but, at the same time, the most fruitful work to-day’ as he put his name to an International Student Service fundraising appeal. The work of the Academic Assistance Council (AAC) – founded in 1933 but known since 2014 as CARA (Council for At-Risk Academics) – in assisting well-known scholars to find positions in British universities has been justly celebrated, as has the kindertransport to Britain of 10,000 unaccompanied children.  The work of International Student Service in supporting student refugees is less well known.  During the 1920s and 1930s the German student movement had become ever more right-wing and anti-Semitic. They began to advocate the introduction of a numerus clausus (restriction on Jewish students in the universities).   Democratic, Jewish, liberal and socialist student groups were increasingly isolated. Jewish students were barred from membership of the German students’ union (the Deutsche Studentenschaft), were prevented from taking examinations, and became unable to find work in the professions for which they had been trained. Between 1933 and 1936 around 7,000 students were expelled from the German universities. Although many remained living in Germany, of those who emigrated 90 percent (2,500) sought help from ISS. In Austria too, Nazi-controlled student groups gained support through the 1920s and 1930s.  After the Anschluss merging the two countries in March 1938, they started a campaign to ‘purify’ the student population. Czech students became refugees following the German occupation of the Sudetenland in March 1939. Between 1933 and 1939 ISS helped thousands of student exiles to find refuge mainly in the UK, France, Switzerland and Holland. While the vast majority were Jewish, ISS also recorded requests for help from ‘Liberals, Socialists, Pacifists and Roman Catholics.’

In England and Wales the ISS committee set up an Advice and Relief Department in London, run by two paid staff members supported by student volunteers. Its work consisted of rehabilitation and resettlement support as much as securing financial aid. By 1936 the London office had assisted over 1,000 refugee students from Germany and was to aid smaller numbers of Austrian and Czech students over the coming years. Such numbers need to be set in the context of an overall UK university population of only around 50,000 in 1939. ISS lobbied universities and colleges to secure additional student places and fee remissions, found scholarships for ‘the most brilliant’ and identified au-pair positions for women students to keep living costs as low as possible. At Liverpool University in 1939, for example, six places for refugees were allocated with tuition fees remitted by the University Senate, while the Guild of Students waived its subscriptions. ISS worked closely with the NUS and other groups to arrange hundreds of invitations for refugee students to spend their holidays in private homes across the UK. Testimony from students attests to the value such exchanges had for both refugees and UK students alike, and is a feature that could be replicated in any new programme. ISS also sought to break down stereotypes and misconceptions by encouraging universities and colleges to hold talks and discussions on refugee problems.

Despite these efforts, aid for student refugees in the UK during the 1930s can hardly be seen as an unqualified success. In 1937 Nottingham’s student paper judged its students' low level of contributions to refugee aid to be a ‘dismal reflection on student apathy’ and expressed a hope that English students never needed to join the exodus of refugees. The work was hampered by government restrictions on the entry of refugees to Britain. Students needed to demonstrate that they would not become a financial burden on the state, while in an era of high graduate unemployment and underemployment, any paid employment students found in Britain was supposed to be of a ‘strictly non-competitive nature’. Such concerns are likely to resonate today. Moreover, in the 1930s there were heavy demands on students’ pockets and their time from other international and domestic charitable causes and campaigns, notably the Spanish Civil War and domestic unemployment. Relief efforts were also limited by the fact that there were plenty of Nazi sympathisers in the universities, as in society more broadly, in the early to mid-thirties.  There were small, short-lived Fascist groups at several universities including Oxford, Cambridge, Armstrong College in Newcastle, Birmingham, Liverpool and Reading. Sir Oswald Mosley provocatively arranged a series of public meetings of his British Union of Fascists (formed in 1932) in university towns, which often ended in violence. By the later 1930s growing awareness of the Nazi policy towards the Jews translated into greater support for refugees, as well as increased anti-Nazi protest on campuses. Following Kristallnacht in November 1938, for example, Oxford students wrote to Lord Halifax, then Foreign Secretary and Oxford’s Chancellor, expressing dissatisfaction with the British government's failure to condemn the Germany's ‘monstrous policy’ towards the Jews.

After 1945

British student support for refugee and displaced students continued during and after the Second World War. A programme of aid coordinated by ISS in partnership with other student organisations initially focused on the needs of student refugees and on the provision of study material to both Allied and Axis student prisoners of war. Later, activities widened to include sending of food supplies to students in occupied countries and to efforts to show solidarity with students worldwide on International Students' Day, designated as 17 November in memory of those killed or imprisoned during the Nazi attack on the Czech universities in 1939. In Britain, one key area of work was 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. Towards the end of the war, and after the end of hostilities, British students raised money and collected gifts-in-kind of food, clothing and study materials for scores of universities across Europe as well as further afield in Burma and Indonesia. More than 100 tons of food aid was shipped to European students between autumn 1945 and spring 1947. Compared to what it described as the ‘cold and impersonal’ relief of official bodies, ISS claimed to have passed on a welcome ‘message of University Solidarity’ to students around the world. An important and unusual form of post-war university reconstruction was the provision of rest centres for students from liberated Europe. In 1945 the UK branch of ISS opened a rest centre in a country house near Chester - selected for its proximity to the large student populations of Manchester and Liverpool - where it hosted over 300 students, including many who had been active in the Dutch Resistance and survivors from Dachau and Ravensbruch concentration camps. In the early 1950s ISS also ran limited programmes for Arab students following the termination of the British Mandate in Palestine.  It was however the 1956 Hungarian revolution that presented opportunities to help refugee students on an unprecedented scale.

Hungary, 1956

The suppression of the Hungarian uprising of November 1956 caused widespread and immediate ‘revulsion throughout the student world’ according to the University of London Union’s student paper. Students threw themselves into organising protest marches and rallies in major university cities including Glasgow, Cardiff, Bristol and Birmingham. University College London, for example, 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. While some talked of recruiting an international force of students to go Hungary to fight as a ‘second International Brigade’, many others embarked on more practical schemes of fundraising and preparing refugee reception centres. A small party of Oxford students travelled to Vienna to start relief work among refugees, activities which have parallels in those students turning up to help out in Calais and elsewhere today.

The most significant student response was in raising money to enable Hungarian refugees to study in British universities and colleges. Although exact figures are unavailable around 1,000 Hungarian students sought assistance in Britain, and in 1959 research conducted at LSE found over 500 were still studying in British universities and technical colleges. Others were helped with advice, retraining or in finding jobs. Universities waived fees and raised over £56,000 through local appeals, but the bulk of the money (around £145,000) came from the Lord Mayor's Fund, and from other sources including the Ford Foundation. As in earlier crises ISS – once again renamed as World University Service (WUS) – played a key coordinating role, along with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.  About 90 per cent of the refugees arriving were men, and most were medical, dental or engineering students. The effort was 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 London, for example, staff and students worked together to equip a hostel, organise Christmas visits to host families, provide meals in the union refectory and recruit volunteer staff and students to teach English. Volunteer involvement in the relief effort was deemed a moral obligation on the part of British students while the cause was strengthened by reports depicting Hungarian students as ‘of good material’, and appreciative of all that was done for them. In an era before universal grants for UK students, however, the organisers faced some negative comparisons between the support available to refugees and that denied disadvantaged home students. Unfortunately, similar comments have resurfaced in today’s crisis.

In 1958 two LSE students - Alan Dare and Paul Hollander, himself a refugee, conducted a survey into the experiences of Hungarian students in Britain which found that the refugees had ‘received extremely favourable treatment’ and were on the whole satisfied with their university experiences. Students prized friendships with British students where they had been able to make them, but were critical that such connections often remained superficial as refugees often felt themselves to be objects of curiosity on campus. Students thrived when placed with other Hungarian students and when they were able to form support networks and specialist clubs. Interestingly, far fewer student refugees had returned home than had Hungarian refugees from the wider population. A 2009 study of the Hungarian students by Magda Czigány found that the degrees students gained enabled them to become ‘industrious members’ of professions including engineering, medicine, architecture, and teaching.  A high proportion went on to further study, university lecturing and scientific research. Some students went on to greater acclaim as musicians, film directors and athletes - including a future member of the British Olympic Committee. In part, the universities' effort for Hungary in 1956 was a way of making amends for what now seemed a wholly inadequate response to the plight of those fleeing Nazi rule in the 1930s. Like today, however, the desire not to be outdone by other countries which had offered to accept student refugees – notably West Germany and France – was a motivating factor.

Chile, 1973

The September 1973 coup by General Pinochet which overthrew the Allende government created a new wave of academic and student refugees. In the UK WUS built on its recent success in securing scholarships for 200 Czech students after the Prague Spring of 1968, to launch a new campaign. This was supported by 60 universities and polytechnics and resulted in WUS being able to award around 100 scholarships to both postgraduate and undergraduate students. In 1974 WUS secured funding for a much expanded scholarship programme from the newly elected Labour government, with the result that over a ten-year period around 900 Chileans were enabled to study in Britain. Research conducted by WUS in 1986 found that whether they came to the UK as students or not, large numbers of Chilean refugees showed an aptitude and inclination for higher education, with over 15 per cent of the total intake of Chilean refugees entering British universities and polytechnics.

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 (ODM).  This funding offers a clear demonstration of the value of state backing for refugee scholarship schemes.  In the mid-1980s a follow-up study found many of the former students were working in education, academia, the media and in the field of social welfare, while the ODM had also supported 253 graduates to find work in international development overseas. Writing more recently, a former Director of WUS, Alan Phillips, reflected that many of the students helped had made major contributions to rebuilding democracy and academic freedom in Chile following the collapse of the dictatorship. However, in a lengthy report designed to evaluate the programme and identify lessons for future schemes, WUS leaders complained that although the UK government had done much to aid student refugees in the 1970s, there was still no long term strategy in place and each crisis was met only with ad hoc arrangements – a situation which continues today.


Students and student organisations are often able to respond quickly to changing social needs, making them well placed to turn their attention to the refugee crisis of summer and autumn 2015. While the refugees currently fleeing civil war in Syria and elsewhere are a diverse group, history shows that specific programmes for refugee students – as part of a wider aid package – can have profound and lasting benefits for recipients and wider society. These benefits can be hard to quantify because, while many student refugees do build new lives, careers and relationships in host countries after graduation, others move on elsewhere – often to the USA – after their education is completed. This is likely to continue to be the case in today’s even more globalised world, but should not be taken as a reason not to support student refugees to get a UK university education. 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. Involvement with schemes providing aid to refugees also has an important educative function for those student volunteers, campaigners and fundraisers who get involved. Meaningful contact between refugees and other students has been important to both groups, and follow-up studies of refugee students find friendships have sustained over decades. The sense of being part of a cohort has also been important to the refugees, emphasising the need for a sector-wide response, rather than a patchwork of provision by individual universities.

A letter signed by 49 former Hungarian student refugees was published in the Times in October 2006 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, and reflected ‘it is our hope that we have been able to repay some of the magnanimous support we received, during our working lives.’ In the past universities have made significant commitments in the form of fee-waivers and scholarships, and there remains much more that the higher education sector might do today. The principle of helping refugee students and academics has a long and proud history that students, university leaders and policy makers would do well to reflect – and indeed act – on in the current crisis.

Further Reading

Georgina Brewis, A Social History of Student Volunteering: Britain and Beyond, 1880-1980 (New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Magda Czigány, "Just Like Other Students": Reception of the 1956 Hungarian Refugee Students in Britain (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2009).

Peter Gatrell, Free World? The Campaign to Save the World's Refugees, 1956-1963 (Cambridge: CUP, 2011).

Shula Marks, Paul Weindling and Laura Wintour eds., In Defence of Learning; the Plight, Persecution and Placement of Academic Refugees, 1933-1980s (London: OUP for the British Academy, 2011).

World University Service, A Study in Exile: A Report on the WUS (UK) Chilean Refugee Scholarship Programme (London: WUS, 1985).

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