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How British universities are militarising education

CHARLIE JAAY talks to campaigners about how the military-industrial-academic complex is expanding on-campus and directing STEM research towards arms manufacture and development

A NEW report by Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) and Demilitarise Education (dED) gives a detailed analysis of how universities are working with the arms industry and military, to research and develop technologies for future warfare.

Titled Weaponising Universities: Research Collaborations between UK Universities and the Military Industrial Complex, the report discusses the ties between British universities, arms companies and the military Establishment — the “military-industrial-academic complex,” their collaboration for military research and dual use systems, and also outlines a series of recommendations and potential solutions.

Marketisation of higher education started in the 1980s when the Tories reduced overall government funding of universities. Their agenda of aligning university research with their economic agenda meant that while universities were getting less funding, private companies, including arms companies, were being invited to start helping that business model.

While the decrease in funding has continued, resulting in Britain experiencing one of the deepest decreases in government funding for education in the EU, universities continue carrying out much of the research and development work, essential for the arms industry and military to manufacture their weapon systems and dual-use technology, mainly through their science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) departments, and are becoming increasingly dependent on the military for funds.

Freelance research officer for dED, Okopi Ajonye, the report’s author, said: “It is one thing to say universities shouldn’t do this, but they have been going through a major funding crisis for a long time. This dramatically raises the incentives of doing research and development for the military and arms industry, and creates a vacuum the military and arms industry are trying to fill. It has created and is enabling conditions for that,” Ajonye explained.

The report highlights two key areas of research and development, where universities are working closely with the military and arms companies. The first is “emerging and disruptive technologies” (EDTs), which the military perceives will be extremely important to achieve dominance in future warfare and victory on the battlefield. EDTs are dominated by artificial intelligence (AI) and cyber systems, and are currently being widely used in Ukraine and Gaza. Their military development specifically depends on research and development carried out by universities and industry. 

“These technologies are promoted as reducing collateral damage, reducing civilian injury and death, but this hasn’t really been the case. Israel is using AI targeting platforms, and we see this hasn’t lived up to these promises — there are very high levels of civilian deaths,” Ajonye said.

“Militarised environmental technologies” (METs) are also detailed in the report. These are seen as important for making it easier to fight future war. According to Ajonye, climate change is going to make it much more difficult to fight in the future. “It’s basically affecting a lot of the military’s weapon systems, so it’s about developing technologies to adapt to climate change.”

One of the three case studies in the report is the University of Southampton, which is involved in research into METs, with Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems, to reduce noise pollution from aircraft and naval vessels, because noise contributes to fossil fuel emissions. However, reducing noise also has an added benefit for the military — it improves stealth and surveillance capabilities, and therefore military capabilities. Arms companies also benefit when they provide METs to the military, as they can then claim to be honouring their environmental commitments under “environmental, social and governance” criteria (ESG), which makes it much easier to gain investment. “It’s little more than a PR greenwashing exercise,” Ajonye said.

The University of Lancaster is another case study, and the report details how BAE Systems is not only a huge employer in north-west England, but also has a major presence in the university, painting itself as contributing to social standards, by developing skills, creating employment and working with the university to promote STEM and engineering careers, as well as furthering their military research, through partnerships with the university.

“BAE Systems is deeply rooted in Lancashire and the uni,” explained Joe, a student at the University of Lancaster, and a founding member of campaign group Demilitarise Lancaster.

“Previous protests were successful in getting the uni to divest but we want it to go further, by completely cutting its ties with arms companies. BAE Systems are currently involved in a project with the University of Lancaster and the University of Cumbria, and are building a sixth form campus in Barrow-in-Furness. They’re not doing this because they care about our education, but because they will get lots out of it. The company’s presence on our campus is also massive at careers fairs,” he said.

“The uni lets them host seminars and also has a research partnership with BAE Systems. Although it has divested from arms companies, all this is still going on.” 

Demilitarise Lancaster has carried out a range of actions — from rallies and leafleting on campus, to banner drops at careers fairs and an occupation of a university building. But, according to Joe, there has been complete silence from management, and no forthcoming offers to talk with students. The university has often reacted with direct hostility towards the campaigners. They have been kicked out of events simply for leafleting, and also been shouted at and escorted off campus by security.

Anticipating the consequences of research can be complicated by the dual-use nature and secrecy of many military academic projects, and it is often not known which universities are involved with these projects, as many of these relationships are secret, and freedom of information requests are often rejected on the basis of security or commercial clauses. 

But Demilitarise Education has been working to build a database of universities arms trade partnerships, and has, so far, uncovered over £1.9 billion worth of defence sector partnerships, including university research partnerships and investments with arms companies.

Jinsella, co-founder and director of Demilitarise Education, said: “We’re now working with students, to untangle, expose and end UK university partnerships with the global arms trade, and this means seeing universities sign the Demilitarise Education treaty, divest from the arms trade, and change their policies. Arms companies fuel and extend the life of conflict, while helping countries profit from it, rather than helping bring those conflicts to an end.” The ongoing genocide in Gaza has seen a wave of student protests and led to huge numbers of students mobilising in support of Palestine, and has greatly increased student awareness of their university ties with the arms industry in general. 

“What’s happening now has highlighted the criminal nature of those partnerships. But beyond the settler colonialism and military occupation in Palestine, the UK university scene is partnering with arms companies that are exporting to human rights abusers all round the world. Yemen is the perfect example of a country that has been really devastated by largely British-made weapons, we we can track in research being supported by UK universities,” Jinsella said.

Universities have military and arms company ties through investments, research and careers services, and these partnerships are often worth tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions of pounds.

Through its engineering research and development in its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, a campus largely funded by arms companies, the University of Sheffield has been crucial in developing some of the processes used to manufacture the F-35 combat aircraft, which Israel is currently using to bomb Gaza.

Bucket is part of Sheffield Action Group (Shag), Sheffield’s queer youth-led direct action collective across the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University.

“All this bothers me immensely. The world of universities, as institutions, is very problematic. They are rock-solid pillars of capitalism and global imperialism. They produce a workforce for all these industries, and their research upholds and perpetuates massive violence and imperial control across the globe. Our unis are in cohorts with arms companies, in bed with war criminals,” she said.

“A big part of our direct action efforts focus on careers fairs because these provide arms companies with a guarantee that their next generation of employees will be engineering graduates from our universities. This is where a lot of the money is, and helps to explain why there are big fancy engineering buildings, while humanities, archaeology and language courses are being cut back or closed,” Bucket said. 

But, up and down the country, students are tired of seeing their universities involved with human rights abuses and corruption, and have mounted opposition to the militarisation of education.

Charlie is a member of Action Against Oxford War Crimes, a coalition of activists taking direct action against Oxford University’s ties to the arms industry and MoD. 

“Earlier this year, a group of anti-arms activists at the uni managed to get the Students’ Union to divest from, and cut ties with arms companies. The SU has now committed to lobbying the university, to do the same,” they said. 

In 2021, an investigation by Action on Armed Violence found that between 2013 and 2021 the university received almost £20 million from Airbus, Lockheed Martin, and Rolls-Royce, mainly linked to research. “When I came here, what really surprised and shocked me,” said Charlie, “is the way the research works — arms companies funding research projects for graduate students to develop new technologies which kill civilians in the global South, in the service of Western imperialism.”

Just this summer, the university accepted a £500,000 donation from Cobham, in return for funding six engineering scholarships. Cobham is an arms company that also produces spyware which has been sold to repressive governments around the world.

“To some extent, I feel that unis force their students to be involved in developing new technologies to more efficiently kill,” Charlie added.

Although universities actively market themselves as institutions promoting environmental and social benefits across the globe, there is growing disillusionment among students, who are wising up to the truth behind their relationships with arms companies and the military.

“We do know that the government has been driving an effort to increase military and arms industry research funding to universities, and are actively encouraging these links, but this needs to change,” said Sam Perlo-Freeman, research co-ordinator at Campaign Against Arms Trade.

“Students are a part of the present and future, and STEM disciplines are increasingly important for so many areas, especially the urgent green transition, for the massive upscaling of green energy and green technologies. The engineering skills needed for these areas are very similar to those needed by the arms industry, and there’s a shortage,” he explained.

“Universities are helping to channel students towards the arms industry, which deals in means of death and destruction, and has a very high carbon footprint, which is channelling them away from the green industry’s technologies, which are absolutely essential to the future of our planet,” he said.




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