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Pro-Palestine activists disrupt University of Sheffield event over institution's ties to weapons manufacturers

The University of Sheffield takes more investment from companies like BAE Systems than any other university in the UK.

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Activists protesting against the university's links to weapons manufacturers on Wednesday. Faces in this photo have been blurred by the Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine to protect identities.

Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine.

Students, staff and activists from the wider community have disrupted a speech given by the head of the University of Sheffield (UoS) to protest the institution’s links with companies that supply weapons being used by Israel in their ongoing genocide in Gaza.

Vice-Chancellor Koen Lamberts was due to speak at UoS’s Education Awards ceremony in Firth Hall at lunchtime on Wednesday, but organisers were forced to abandon the event after dozens of protestors took to the stage to demand that the university divest from apartheid and genocide.

Members of the Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine (SCCP) want UoS to cut ties with global aerospace companies like Rolls-Royce, Boeing and BAE Systems, who manufacture components which are used in military technology deployed by Israel, including fighter jets.

The university has accepted more than £72 million in investment from companies involved in manufacturing deadly weapons since 2012 – more than any other university in the UK. This is mostly money paid to the university for research that is then used to develop components which could be used either for civilian or military purposes.

Annie O'Gara from the Sheffield Palestine Coalition, who was at the protest on Wednesday, said the contrast between the glitzy awards ceremony and the anti-apartheid demonstration that it turned into “could not have been more eloquent.”

"Those present, from the Vice-Chancellor to security staff, were brought face to face with the truth about genocide and famine being inflicted on Gaza today,” she continued, pointing out the juxtaposition of “famine, slaughter and destruction in Gaza” with the “lavish hospitality and celebration in Sheffield University, a university enriched by lucrative arms contracts.”

Some members of university staff who were in attendance at the awards ceremony applauded the protestors, and were even invited to join them onstage.

As well as divestment from weapons manufacturers, the SCCP also want UoS to sever any ties with Israeli universities which support the ongoing genocide, and boycott “all Israeli companies and affiliated institutions”, including those that provide surveillance software to higher education institutions.

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Faces in this photo have been blurred by the Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine to protect identities.

Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine.

Such a move would not be unprecedented – in the 1970s and 80s, universities across the UK alongside public bodies like local councils mounted a comprehensive and ultimately successful boycott against South Africa over their own apartheid policies.

Just yesterday, Queen's University Belfast pledged to divest from companies on a UN human rights list after student protests, though activists said the move “falls short” of what they demanded. Earlier in the week, Trinity College Dublin agreed to divest from all Israeli companies and any company operating in occupied Palestine after a five-day student sit-in.

The SCCP’s third demand is for “the immediate initiation of a divestment strategy led by staff and students”, which would see university resources allocated to aerospace research redirected towards “sustainable and holistic industries”. The group have also called for “the creation of ongoing mechanisms of accountability and transparency especially regarding financial investments and profits.”

A student member of the SCCP, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the university has so far chosen to “ignore” the organisation’s three demands.

“Their policy is to pretend that there is no anger amongst students, staff, and community members and to hope that the problem goes away,” they continued. “This action sends a message that, as long as our university remains complicit in genocide, we are not going away. We call for an immediate meeting with university management to present our demands and to navigate a way forward.”

With separate figures from openDemocracy showing that UoS took £42 million in funding from weapons manufacturers over the past five years – again, more than any other university in the UK – there are growing calls from staff at the institution for divestment from apartheid.

“I am proud to see our students taking a stand and joining this worldwide movement against the ongoing genocide in Gaza,” said politics and international relations lecturer Dr Lisa Stampnitzky. “Our university needs to confirm its commitment to be an ethical institution and divest itself of ties to the development of weapons used to perpetrate atrocities.”

As well as protests from its own staff and students, the university’s increasingly wayward approach to ethics amid the ongoing war is also drawing criticism from other organisations in the city.

Green councillor for Gleadless Valley Alexi Dimond told Now Then that students protesting against the university have his “full support and solidarity”, adding: “They are the conscience of our city, continuing Sheffield's proud radical and humanitarian tradition.”

Cllr Dimond, who has recently been targeted by the billionaire-owned Times newspaper for speaking out against the genocide, emphasised that effective action can take place at a local as well as a national and international level.

“It's important to highlight that they are not there protesting only against the UK government, or the crimes of Israel, but first and foremost against the University of Sheffield's complicity,” he said. “The University needs to recognise that fact and engage and negotiate with the students around their demands."

Now Then contacted the University of Sheffield and asked why the institution continues to take investment from companies that manufacture weapons being used in an ongoing genocide, but they declined to answer this specific question.

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Faces in this photo have been blurred by the Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine to protect identities.

Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine.

We also asked whether Vice-Chancellor Lamberts would meet with SCCP to discuss their demands, and for the university’s response to the demands relating to a boycott and financial accountability, but they declined to answer either of these questions.

A spokesperson for the university instead told Now Then they were aware of the protest camp outside the Students’ Union and that they “support the right of our students to express their views peacefully and within the law and planned campus activities will continue as normal.”

“We ask students involved in protests to be mindful of the experiences and positions of others. We also want to remind our students of the behavioural expectations around protests and that racism, antisemitism or Islamophobia will not be tolerated.”

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