Global university without a global conscience

A UCL student calls on her university to stop investing in the arms trade

Why is London’s global university, University College London (UCL), so desperately clinging on to its investment in arms companies?

UCL currently has shares worth over £900,000 in the arms trader Cobham PLC. Cobham produces parts of weapons systems which have been used in Israeli bombing raids in Lebanon last year, and in many other conflict zones around the world.

To me, and to at least 1,253 other students and staff members at UCL, the question of ethical investment is a no brainer: education and research just do not go together with a business that kills.

UCL has a proud liberal tradition. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the college’s founding father, famously said that "war is mischief upon the largest scale". Surely UCL should stay away from investing in arms companies?

UCL Provost Malcolm Grant seems to disagree. In a meeting with student campaigners last week Grant received a petition signed by over 1,200 UCL students, staff and alumni calling for UCL to ditch the arms shares. He also heard the personal story of UCL alumnus Richard Wilson, whose sister Charlotte was killed by a militia in Burundi. Her killers told her that she was dying because of "the white people supplying the weapons in Africa".

Despite the overwhelming support of the Disarm UCL campaign, Grant refused to genuinely engage with the issue of divestment from Cobham. Instead he concentrated on criticizing students and suggested we were campaigning against UCL.

We told him that we identify very strongly with our university. Grant said he was reassured by this. He can't have been that reassured: five days after the meeting he wrote a letter to UCL alumni saying again that it was "odd for the major campaign to have been commenced against UCL."

By campaigning for UCL to adopt an ethical investment policy, we want what is in UCL’s best interest. Ethical investment brings good financial returns. According to a survey published by the Financial Times in 2005 the Church of England’s ethical investment fund performed second best out of 1000 funds surveyed.

The continued investment in Cobham shares and the refusal to adopt an ethical investment policy (beyond excluding tobacco products) is bad for UCL's reputation. Instead of London's global university, UCL has now become known as "the Gower Street gunrunners".

Last Friday, Reed Elsevier, a leading academic publishing company decided to pull out of organizing arms fairs. According to Reed Elsevier CEO Crispin Davies, the company had made this decision after listening closely to the concerns of important customers and authors who "believe strongly that our presence here is incompatible with the aims of the science and medical communities".

All that is left now is to hope that the UCL Council, which meets again on Wednesday, 13 June, will take the issue of adopting an ethical investment policy seriously. If not, well, we shall all catch our breaths before the next academic year and be back in September with lots more clever and creative campaigning to disarm UCL.

Sara Hall is a PhD student at University College London (UCL). She is Amnesty International UK country coordinator for Russia, campaigns for ethical investment at UCL, and tries to save her friend Guy Njike from deportation.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496