Universities and the arms trade

Campaign Against the Arms Trade's Tim Street on the links between British universities and arms comp

In recent months, students and staff across the UK have been lobbying their universities to sell their shares in arms companies and invest ethically.

When University College London students discovered that their university had £900,000 invested in Cobham (which manufactures components for Hellfire missiles- used widely in both Afghanistan and Iraq)they formed Disarm UCL in order to bring this relationship to an end.

In a meeting with student campaigners, UCL Provost Malcolm Grant received a petition signed by over 1,200 UCL students, staff and alumni calling for UCL to ditch the arms shares. Such overwhelming support for the campaign led him and UCL Council to announce that the university would invest its money ethically.

UCL is by no means the first university to recognize the importance of ethical investment.

Campaigners at Manchester University held die-ins and other high-profile events, culminating in 300 students passing a Union motion for ethical investment. This has led to the university engaging directly with students concerning the future of university finances.

Furthermore, protests, petitions and student journalism have caused SOAS, Bangor (University of Wales), St Andrews and Goldsmiths to take real steps towards ending their financial ties with arms companies.

Progress towards transparency and accountability on campus has occurred because activists have used persuasive moral and financial arguments to explain why investing in the arms trade is unnecessary and wrong.

For example, they have shown that universities can fulfill their financial duties whilst investing ethically and maintain a good rate of return.

Ethical investment funds that preclude arms company shares are among the most profitable. In the past decade the Church of England’s £4.3 billion ethically-managed fund was the second best performer of more than 1,000 funds.

Furthermore, the fact that the majority of university arms investors hold less than 2% of their overall investments in arms companies means that divestment will not have a significant impact upon their portfolios.

So why is it that some universities try and cling on to their arms company shares?

Perhaps an answer can be found in the burgeoning number of research projects at UK universities which are conducted in collaboration with arms companies.

At a committee meeting in 2006, Malcolm Ace, Director of Finance at Southampton University, told students that it would be ‘hypocritical’ to sell his university's shares in BAE Systems when it receives hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of research funding from them year on year.

Research collaborations provide substantial funding for university departments – but in return for them becoming outsourced research facilities for private companies. Universities' science, engineering and technology agendas are inevitably shifted from independent research to the stimulation of particular industrial sectors: like the guided weapons technology centres at Cranfield University and Imperial College London, part-funded by arms company Qinetiq; or the 20 University Technology Centres funded by military aerospace giant Rolls-Royce. (See "Soldiers in the laboratory: Military involvement in science and technology," Scientists for Global Responsibility).

Arms companies are already subsidised by public money to the tune of £890m annually, yet universities are expected to provide research for these already over-protected companies.

Whether or not students and dons regard the commercialisation of higher education as financially necessary, they shouldn't be made to contribute to commercial interests which involve not just corporate profit, but the development of products designed to maim and kill; nor to collaborate with companies whose core markets include conflict zones and human rights abusers

Campaign groups such as Disarm UCL, which are prepared to highlight the gap between an institution's professed commitment to “tackle humanity's most pressing problems,”3 and the economic reality, are thus vital if public money is to cease being channeled into the pockets of arms company CEOs.

For without anyone questioning the status quo, institutions renowned for their commitment to internationalism and human progress will continue to support companies whose profits rest upon proliferating weapons and sustaining international tension.

You can find out more about Campaign Against the Arms Trade by clicking here