Students Are Catching Their Universities in Bed With Arms Companies


by Zac Larkham

27 May 2024

BAE Systems donated more than £8.5m to the University of Sheffield between 2012 and 2022. Cover Images/Reuters

UK universities invest nearly £430m in companies complicit in Israeli violations of international law. These commercial ties are under the spotlight like never before due to the genocide in Gaza, and there are now over 30 university protest encampments now across the UK calling for demilitarisation and divestment.

Some protesters have been busy taking a forensic look at just how enmeshed in the arms industry and Israeli apartheid their universities are.

Top of the league table is the University of Sheffield, which received over £72m in direct funding from some of the world’s largest arms manufacturers between 2012 and 2022 – more than any other UK university, and more than Oxford and Cambridge combined. In the last five years alone, the University of Sheffield took £42m from arms companies.

Last week, the Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine (SCCP) – the organisation behind the University of Sheffield encampment – released their Genocide and Apartheid Complicity Report. (Full closure, I did a small amount of editing work on this report.) 

It shows that funding from arms manufacturers allows these companies to influence teaching and research areas, provide students with career opportunities in the defence sector, greenwash their products and contribute as little as 4.5% towards their own R&D costs by accessing state funded research to develop weapons. (The university denies that the funding influences research areas.)

Activists have suspected for some time that the University of Sheffield takes more money from arms companies than any other UK university. What that money has been used for is often unclear, but one beneficiary is BAE Systems, Britain’s largest arms company and the world’s sixth largest, which donated more than £8.5m to the university between 2012 and 2022.

BAE builds components for the F-35 fighter jets currently being used in Gaza. In February, a Dutch court ordered the country to halt all exports of F-35 parts, citing the “undeniable risk” the parts could be used in “serious violations of international humanitarian law”.

BAE Systems is so grateful to the university that in 2017 it gave two awards to its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). The centre’s research was being used to “process a wide range of composite components for military aircraft, saving the company millions of pounds in capital and operational costs over the coming years,” said Ben Morgan, head of the AMRC’s Integrated Manufacturing Group.

The Sheffield report says the university is also currently helping BAE build parts for the RAF’s high tech next-generation Tempest fighter aircraft and armour plating for BAE’s land vehicles, among other projects.

A spokesperson from the University of Sheffield said: “We recognise that some of our research and innovation projects have the potential for dual use and include some research related to defence and global security challenges, however these projects are subject to stringent due-diligence processes, scrutiny and oversight.

“We know that some members of our University community have concerns about this area and we will continue to review our approach, to ensure we are upholding our values and supporting academic freedom.”

Until recently, the university has been stonewalling activists calling for demilitarisation. In the last two years, which have seen a spate of occupations, blockades and now a three-week encampment, management has failed to meet students and staff to discuss their demands.

Last week, however, the university appears to have been rattled by the report.

University management forced the launch event for the report hosted by the local University and Colleges Union (UCU) branch off campus by limiting the number of attendees to 100, demanding no face coverings, banning banners, flags and placards and promising a heavy security presence who would check IDs and bags of everyone attending. (The university says that like all on campus events, the launch was subject to a risk assessment and recommended some safety measures.)

The vice chancellor later sent an email to the entire university assuring students all research goes through “stringent due-diligence processes”, such as credit checks and screening for links to sanctioned countries, making this the first time in recent memory that senior management has addressed all university members explicitly about ties to the arms trade.

A spokesperson from the Sheffield camp told Novara Media: “We refuse to believe that the University is unaware it has blood on its hands. The implication is that they simply do not care. We have one clear message: attempts to ignore us or to remove us will be unsuccessful. Students and staff will continue to challenge the university. They might be able to sit with their consciences – we cannot.”

At the London School of Economics (LSE), students have occupied the Marshall building last week – named after major donor and part-owner of rightwing news channel GB News Paul Marshall.

The LSE Palestine Society has also published a report this month examining what they believe is LSE’s complicity in the ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people, the arms trade and climate breakdown through their investments.

Research from LSE’s own Grantham Institute on Climate Change and the Environment shows that divesting from fossil fuel companies does not damage value and returns. Students say LSE is not following its own advice and the ESG policy is full of holes.

LSE has an endowment currently valued at approximately £485m. Of that, the report says the university has investments worth £89m in 137 companies involved in what it calls “four egregious activities”: crimes against the Palestinian people, extraction and/or distribution of fossil fuels, proliferation and/or manufacture of arms and financing of fossil companies or nuclear weapon producers.

£48.5m is invested in companies involved in crimes against the Palestinian people and £1.8m in 13 arms companies. A further £7m is invested in companies involved with fossil fuels, £67m in organisations such as JP Morgan that finance the fossil fuel industry and nuclear weapons producers, and £174m is administered by eight mutual fund managers that have lent billions to fossil fuel companies and nuclear weapons producers.

As protests continue, activists have made it clear they are not going anywhere. Ethan Chua, a 2nd year Masters student studying International and World History at LSE, said: “LSE continues to actively profit from the genocide of Palestinians through its egregious investment activities. With no universities left in Gaza, the moral duty of our institution to the Palestinian people is clear.”

A spokesperson for LSE said: “We are carefully considering this report and will respond in due course. 

“LSE is committed to strengthening our approach to responsible investment in line with our Environmental, Social and Governance Policy, which was adopted in 2022 with the aid of student input. 

 “This policy includes LSE not making direct or, as far as possible, indirect investments in companies engaged in tobacco manufacture or indiscriminate arms manufacture. It also seeks to eliminate direct investments, and greatly reduce exposure of indirect investments, to the worst polluting fossil fuels.”

Zac Larkham is a freelance journalist and student activist at Sheffield Hallam University.

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