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.
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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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