The WSCF was established in 1895 at Vadstena Castle, Sweden, by students and student leaders from ten North American and European countries. Key founders included John R. Mott (USA) and Karl Fries (Sweden).
There is a close historical connection between the WSCF and the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Christian Associations. Mott, for example, was leader of the YMCA, and with the help of YMCA colleagues he developed the vision and strategies for forming an international federation of autonomous and self-directing ecumenical student movements. Much of the subsequent work of establishing and linking SCMs was done with the assistance of YMCAs and YWCAs.
During and after the world wars, the WSCF played a key role in refugee work in Europe and strove to keep communication and solidarity links open between Christians divided by nationalism and war. After the first world war, the WSCF established European Student Relief. For four years, students of 42 nations provided over £500,000 for the relief of starving students in 19 countries.
At that time close working relationships developed with Pax Romana, the student organization of the Roman Catholic Church. In 1926 European Student Relief became an autonomous body, International Student Service, later to be called World University Service, which continues to this day. During the second world war, women leaders of the WSCF and YWCA played a major role in creating CIMADE,* which worked with refugees.
Until the late 1960s, the international staff of the WSCF were based in Geneva. A major structural change in 1972 decentralized the WSCF into six regions: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America, Middle East and North America. The Geneva headquarters became the inter-regional office. Programmatic and decision-making work shifted to the regions, reflecting the new mood of self-determination in third-world countries and the search for contextualization in theology and politics. The WSCF continues to examine critically its structures, both politically and administratively, especially as its constituency is now looking for ways to strengthen programme and solidarity links that go beyond the regional boundaries.
In the 1960s and 1970s, WSCF movements, especially in North America and Europe, were closely involved with the radical political movements. Their political solidarity and their critique of education convinced them that them mission filed was no longer in educational institutions but on the streets and in the villages. The theme of the WSCF in the 1970s – Christian Witness in the Struggle for Liberation – sums up the political commitment of the WSCF at the same time it moved to a regional structure.
The political debates in the WSCF were painful, at times divisive.
Hence in the late 20th century the WSCF lives in a much more complex environment in the educational institutions, and this poses a new challenge to its missionary and ecumenical task. Its member movements have been consolidating their presence in educational institutions again, giving specific attention to conveying the unique ecumenical character of their work and life.
As a result, some movements that almost disappeared in the 1970s have re-established their organizational base. However, many movements remain vulnerable, with little financial support and strong competition from conservative groups.