Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

There’s no place for arms companies at our university

We don't want to study at an institution that actively makes the world a worse place, write student activists who are occupying the University’s Diamond building in protest.

Sheffield Action group Diamond building occupation Oct 2022
Sheffield Action Group

Earlier this month students at the Universities of Bristol and Nottingham staged dramatic protests with fake blood and lots of shouting. They were there to protest arms companies’ presence at careers fairs.

This week we joined them by occupying the Diamond, the University of Sheffield’s £81m home to engineering courses. Sheffield Action Group is here to protest the university’s deep ties to the arms trade. We are writing this piece anonymously to protect our identities.

Last year the University of Sheffield topped a list of British universities who accept funding from arms manufacturers. According to a freedom of information request filed by Action on Armed Violence, they took £47 million between 2013 and 2020 – more than Oxford and Cambridge universities combined.

Almost three quarters of this total came from Rolls-Royce, who produce military aircraft engines, naval engines and cores for nuclear submarines. Their engines have been used in BAE System’s planes which are sold to Saudi Arabia, where the state has been accused of committing war crimes in Yemen, bombing schools and hospitals and contributing to what the UN calls “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”.

The university has taken money from BAE Systems and Boeing too, both listed in the top 10 of the SIPRA Top 100 arms manufacturers. Boeing is the third largest arms manufacturer in the world, producing the famous Chinook helicopter, B-52 bomber and Apache attack helicopter, used in occupied Palestine, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Libyan civil war which led to a humanitarian crisis still happening today, and which BAE has been accused of facilitating.

As well as making fighter jets, according to a BBC investigation BAE Systems have sold internet surveillance technologies to repressive governments in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman.

According to its website, the University of Sheffield also has ‘industrial partnerships’ with:

  • Caterpillar, who manufacture militarised bulldozers used by Israel to destroy Palestinian houses, the same that killed American peace activist Rachel Corrie in 2003;

  • Airbus, one of the biggest arms companies in the world, which produces drones and, with BAE, shares 75% of Europe’s dominant missile manufacturer, MBDA;

  • GKN Aerospace, who sold £1.1 billion of arms in 2020;

  • General Electric Aviation, who produce engines for fighters, bombers, tankers, helicopters and surveillance aircraft;

  • QinetiQ, who offer a range of military products and services and have a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, including a joint venture, QDM, with Saudi company Dar Massader;

Sheffield Hallam University is not free of complicity either, taking funds from arms companies and holding industrial partnerships with JCB, Caterpillar and Volvo – who all sell vehicles to Israel for the demolition of Palestinian houses – Rolls Royce, BAE Systems, the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory and Tata Steel, one of the largest defence providers to India’s far right government, who also have a partnership with the University of Sheffield.

University of Sheffield industrial partners

The University of Sheffield's 'industrial partners', as listed on its website in October 2022.

We want to sever a relationship between universities and arms manufacturers that goes back hundreds of years. As long as Britain had an empire, its universities were there to produce middle managers, civil servants, military officers and administrators like Cecil Rhodes who kept the empire running. Without our university system, which has stayed largely unchanged for the last 200 years, you simply don't have the British empire.

Put simply, our universities are steeped in a history of oppression and imperialism. It's why they readily accept funding from arms companies and oil giants who fund research institutes and projects as ‘investments’. For all their talk about ‘decolonising’, at their core our universities are designed to uphold white supremacy and the violence it creates. British universities see the poor and people of colour as disposable and we should hold them accountable for that.

The relationships our universities have with arms companies set up a pipeline for graduate students to fall into jobs working for the very same companies that funded their university department. Many students, particularly those in STEM subjects, are graduating with thousands of pounds of debt. Many find that the best way of paying off that debt is by working for corporations which design and produce military hardware. It's a perfect system; wealthy arms companies get the crème de la crème of graduates, putting them to work on technologies used for war and destruction instead of putting their minds to something, you know, useful.

More and more money is being given to the military to prey on working-class students who have run out of options and see no choice but to join the army. Arms companies and the military come to our careers fairs, give assemblies at our schools and sponsor our pride parades to improve their public image, but you can't polish a turd. Militarisation is a disease that creeps into public life and normalises the behaviour of companies that profit from war. This shouldn't be seen as normal in a fair society, and as a group of student activists we have committed to fighting it in every corner that we find it hiding in our universities.

As students, and ultimately the biggest funders of the university, we don't want to study at an institution that actively makes the world a worse place. When we graduate, we don't want to shake hands with a Vice-Chancellor who sees no issue with his university taking money from arms companies.

Universities can be so much more than research institutes for private companies that profit from conflict. After nearly a decade of student outcry, motions at the Students’ Union and an ‘ethical investment policy’ which allows companies producing arms to remain on campus, we are giving them a taste of their own medicine. We are declaring war on the arms companies. We refuse to be complicit in war crimes and we will demilitarise our universities.

The University of Sheffield did not respond directly to questions from Now Then about its links to arms companies.

A spokesperson from the University said: “For many years the University has undertaken research with a wide range of global manufacturing companies, including Boeing and Rolls-Royce.

“Our connections with industrial partners mean we can help to influence positive change and accelerate more sustainable manufacturing practices. For example our work in high-performance lightweight materials has led to the production of lighter, more fuel-efficient cars and planes.

"We are also committed to providing our students with information about a wide range of organisations offering placements and graduate jobs at our careers fairs so they can make personal informed decisions about their future careers.”

Learn more

Sheffield Action Group is a queer student-led direct action collective across the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University.

More Democracy & Activism

More Democracy & Activism