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.