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University of Sheffield threatens to remove Palestine encampment as students dig in

A comprehensive new report on the university’s ties to the arms trade paints a shocking picture.

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Students unfurl a banner reading “Stop Funding Genocide” and re-name Firth Court ‘Complicity Court’ - image author’s own

Students at the Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine (SCCP) encampment have held a solidarity rally this week in response to what it described as the University of Sheffield’s “demand to leave”:

On Thursday 30th May, the University of Sheffield finally acknowledged the presence of the SCCP Student Encampment for Gaza, which has now stood proudly outside the Students’ Union for 32 days. Rather than acknowledge our efforts or our demands, we received a paltry piece of paper, conspicuously lacking an official letterhead or signature, calling for the closure of the encampment.

When asked if the university had indeed asked students to leave the encampment, a spokesperson from UoS told Now Then:

Protesters have been reminded that they do not have the University’s permission for an encampment and that they are trespassing, so have been asked to leave safely and peacefully.

The encampment exists to protest the university’s ties to the arms trade that is facilitating the genocide in Palestine, to express solidarity with Palestinians, including students, and to allow free expression from students about their own university’s complicity as they see it.

Having visited the encampment a number of times, I’ve seen first hand how students are building a community where they can learn together, eat together, hold events for children, and make posters all in an effort to build solidarity around Palestine. Is the university’s problem with such activities that it doesn’t involve the commodification of education? That students are applying the critical thinking skills the university is supposed to hone?

It is entirely remarkable that the university considers the students to be trespassing on their own campus. How else would the university have them express their beliefs on Palestine? In a less noticeable way, perhaps?

Community support

The university may well need to think again about its position among the wider community if it insists that students must leave their own campus. On Saturday 1 June, a couple of days after being told to leave, the people of Sheffield showed up in force to support the encampment. And, in anticipation of potential removal by the university, students rallied for a demonstration outside Firth Court on Monday 3 June. Here, members of trade unions, lecturers from the university, alumni, and fellow students gathered outside the building to protest the university’s complicity in genocide and to show that the encampment will not just disappear simply because the university wants it to.

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Sheffield residents showed up in force to support the student encampment on Saturday 1 June, before marching to the Town Hall - image author’s own

It says a lot that residents of Sheffield are bringing food and donations for the encampment, spending time with students, and that family days where people bring their children along are becoming commonplace. What exactly is the university threatened by? A student member of SCCP told Now Then:

The University most certainly wants us to disassemble, so that their pristine reputation at open days and graduations this summer is not tarnished by recognition of their genocidal involvement. However, we will not be moving. We will stand strong in solidarity with the Palestinians who refuse to walk away from their homeland. Today we have reminded the university that there is a clear and frankly easy path for them to end our encampment: Acknowledge our presence then agree to and attend a meeting with us to address our demands. It’s time to end the University’s complicity in the genocide of the Palestinian people.

In seeing protest as trespass, the university are further demonstrating their colonial attitude to education. In effect, the university functions as a business, students are its customers, and anything that damages the image of its business – be it a student encampment plain to see on graduation and open days – is a threat to the university’s only priority: its bottom line.

In fact, it has been heartening to see a range of folks from across Sheffield rallying around the students and taking back the university from a management attempting to stifle the collective approach to education, resistance, and community that the encampment is providing.

Arms trade

Aside from its community actions, SCCP has also carried out rigorous and impactful research. A newly released report, the University of Sheffield Genocide and Apartheid Complicity Report, details the foundational myriad questionable business and reserach connections that prop up the university.

The report found that:

The university’s historical industrial relationships illustrate a dependence on the war economy which has continued and expanded to this day, only shifting in form with the growing corporatisation of the economy in a region previously dominated by local families and industry owners.

The report contends that the University of Sheffield is inextricably linked to war, war crimes, and profits from them (2). They explain that the Advanced Manufacturing Research Center (AMRC), the AMRC Training Centre, and Nuclear AMRC are central to the university's research outputs. The current known investments are detailed as follows:

  • Boeing: £25 million
  • BAE Systems: more than £8.5 million between 2012-2022
  • Safran: leaders of a £1.7 million project in collaboration with Lockheed Martin
  • Thales: invested £1.1 million between 2012-2022
  • The Royce Institute (who partner with Boeing, Rolls Royce, and Raytheon) are part of a £42.5 million defence material development programme.

Besides the clear marketisation of education, the university’s ties to such companies that manufacture weapons poses serious moral questions for both the staff and students at the university, as well as for Sheffield at large. As Now Then have previously covered, the university has been a central conduit that facilitates academic research on weapons manufacture. It is no great stretch to say that the arms industry wouldn’t be able to operate on the scale that it does without the involvement of universities across the country.

Due diligence

When asked about these ties, a University of Sheffield spokesperson told Now Then:

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.

The report’s authors question whether the university’s research and investment ties to the arms trade do indeed contravene the university’s own policies. The report argues:

As of 2022, the University of Sheffield’s Endowment Investment Policy advises that ‘the University’s choice of where to invest should reflect the values it publicly espouses.’

Of course, the university appears to be suggesting that they have no real problem with involvement in the arms trade because, as their spokesperson said:

These [partnerships] are mainly focused on contributing to improved manufacturing processes and materials that boost productivity and sustainability and support our regional and national economy.

Once again, the University of Sheffield’s values can best be understood as business values that place profit and economic concerns above all else. Whilst this is entirely expected given the UK’s colonial capitalist interests, that doesn’t mean students should just stop thinking and let the university go about its business.

The argument both the students at the encampment and the report make is that there are unquestionable business and research ties between weapons manufacturers and the university, but capitalist interests are not enough to justify the university’s role in equipping the genocide of Palestinians.

Waste of public money

Even if you’re of the view that stimulating the economy is more important than people being burned alive in Rafah, the report goes on to explain that public funds are being misused, even by corporate capitalist standards:

The authors contend that the University of Sheffield should not be enabling the mechanism through which public funds are used to subsidise private profits, and neither should these profits be supported by lower wages for University of Sheffield employees.

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Students don masks of Koen Lamberts face and hold a mock trial - image author’s own

Here, the authors make a distinction between the low wages and lack of ideal working standards that saw the University and Colleges Union (UCU) call for strike after strike, and the fact that the likes of University of Sheffield vice-chancellor Koen Lamberts makes almost £300,000 a year – 8.8 times greater than the median basic salary of his employees.

The report continues:

Adding a final insult to injury, the defence companies, so well supported by public funds, continue to fail to deliver on government contracts. General Dynamics wasted billions of pounds in dangerously poor design for the Ajax armoured vehicle, delaying deliveries by more than a decade while still managing to pay £20 billion to its shareholders. Work on this project was conducted by William Cook at the AMRC.

This analysis leads us to question the validity and suitability of the defence sector as a recipient of so much financial, political and university support.

Clearly, the university has shown no moral objection to its ties to weapons manufacturers – but it would appear it’s not even an effective use of public funds.

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Students and their supporters gather at the Palestine encampment - image author’s own

What’s next?

The students at the encampment have called attention to the university’s research and business links. As a former student and researcher at the university, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to look at the massacre in Palestine and not think of our university’s culpability. Families, trade unionists, university staff, and many more Sheffield residents have thrown their support behind the encampment.

The students at the encampment have bravely challenged the university’s interpretation of what world-leading research is, and built an alternative community that actually has education and intellectualism at its heart, rather than business interests. Will the university come down on the side of its business interests, or its duty to the concerns of its own students, and Sheffield residents?

Chances are, we all know the answer to that question.

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