Bristol University: School or Weapons Factory?

This spring, many of us will have seen the Arab uprisings, and been shocked at the way peaceful people have been gassed, shot at, and otherwise attacked by their own governments. What will have passed many of us by however, is that many of the weapons used against these people were manufactured by companies in the UK. Every day around the world, British companies (with the support of the British government), are flogging weapons to some of the most repressive and brutal regimes in the world.

Where might one go to find these arms dealers? Surely, they are ashamed, kept out of sight to avoid being held to account for their heinous deeds? Well, in fact one need look no further than Bristol University. BAE Systems for instance – one of the largest arms dealers in the world – has an active presence on campus. Despite involvement in numerous corruption scandals, and having sold arms to a long list of dictatorial regimes (including Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and East Timor, to name but a few [1]), this company is invited back year after year to recruit undergraduates at Bristol University. They have a prominent place at every engineering careers fair, where undergraduates are told about exciting careers opportunities, with no mention whatsoever about ethics, or that it might be questionable to work for such a company. Surely, it is the duty of the careers service to inform students of the actions of the companies they consider working for?

However, the university’s involvement in this deadly trade goes far deeper than acting as a recruitment agency. From 2001 to 2006, staff at the University of Bristol took on a total of 101 military related research projects, receiving at least twelve million pounds from arms dealers and military organisations.[2] It is ironic that an institution which supposedly believes in free enquiry should be happy to work with people who help to repress that freedom elsewhere.

While many students and staff are working to resist the involvement of arms companies in university life, I do not believe this will fix the underlying problem. For years now, university has become less about advancing knowledge, and more about aiding the interests of government and business. For instance, it is important to remember that the careers service receives little financial support from the university. As long as they rely on revenue from businesses outside of the university, to make ends meet, they will always have to work for the interests of rich companies, rather than students. It is my hope that last year’s ‘winter of discontent’, where students took to the streets to oppose damaging changes to higher education, will mark the start of a movement that changes the direction in which universities are going.

[1] On arms sales to Zimbabwe, see http://www.caat.org.uk/resources/publications/armsfairs/dsei-2003-report/baes.php; to East Timor and Saudi Arabia, see http://www.caat.org.uk/resources/publications/companies/ControlBAE_briefing.php
[2] On military involvement in universities in the UK, see http://www.studywarnomore.org.uk; at the University of Bristol: http://www.studywarnomore.org.uk/documents/bristol.pdf

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