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University of Sheffield’s participation in the arms trade is modern colonialism

OPINION: The University has had at least £72 million in investment from the arms trade since 2012 - how do they not have blood on their hands?

BAE Systems Hawk T2 jets

Hawk T2 fighter jets are built by BAE Systems, which has invested £8.5m in the University in Sheffield since 2012/13.

Wikimedia Commons/Steve Lynes

A freedom of information (FOI) request has revealed that the University of Sheffield has made at least £72 million from the arms trade since 2012/13. The university has received investment from companies including BAE Systems, GKN and Boeing. From BAE alone, the university has made £8.5 million.

BAE Systems is the world's fourth largest arms producer. The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) have noted that they manufacture and trade in warships, tanks, missiles, aircraft, cyberintelligence and more. CAAT also stated that:

BAE’s Typhoon and Tornado aircraft have been central to Saudi Arabia’s devastating attacks on Yemen – attacks that have killed thousands and created a humanitarian disaster. Further Typhoon aircraft have been delivered to Saudi Arabia during the bombing and BAE and the UK government are pushing hard for a new contract.

‘Frightful means of destruction’

An openDemocracy investigation this year found that the UK government and BAE are so entrenched with one another that BAE is among companies which pay the salaries of Ministry of Defence staff, whilst securing high-paying government contracts, often without a competitive tender process.

As recently as 2019 a number of human rights organisations filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court that claimed that BAE Systems, along with other arms manufacturers, were involved in alleged war crimes in Yemen.

GKN is a subsidiary of Melrose Industries, the world’s 69th largest arms company in 2020. Boeing is the second largest arms company in the world, and CAAT notes that their aircraft are used in military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

Responding to the information request, Sheffield councillor Minesh Parekh said:

There is a way to run a university and to generate knowledge to benefit humanity, rather than develop frightful means of destruction… Our Universities and colleges have a public duty to promote careers in professions that advance social, economic and climate justice.

Neo-colonialism

It’s a choice for the University of Sheffield to make money from arms manufacturers – a choice that’s entirely in line with the marketisation of higher education.

Increasingly, students are seen as consumers and universities are run as businesses. Senior staff take home large salaries and overwork academic and professional staff, all whilst selling students' education down the river.

Just recently, Sheffield Action Group (SHAG) have protested against the university’s ties to arms companies. The direct action group wrote for Now Then:

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… 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’.

The university has shown interest in decolonisation, but their words and actions ring hollow. River Butterworth, Education Officer at the University of Nottingham Students’ Union, explains:

Universities are fundamentally linked to imperialism . . . look at Iraq. These wars are directly linked to the university. Who’s using this research? It’s not Palestinian people and resistance using this research when they’re getting bombed by drones. Western countries can produce weapons and go and invade, and have the research to make more systems for killing people and the power over where the research is going.

Ethics governance

A spokesperson from the University of Sheffield noted that the university does not make a profit from its funding from arms companies, and that the money goes back into research at the university. They said:

Our connections with industrial partners mean we can help to influence positive change and accelerate more sustainable manufacturing practices – making things faster, cheaper and greener to support our regional and national economy…We have a code of ethics for all of our research and innovation which ensures there is rigorous governance in place.

It’s difficult to take this code of ethics seriously when it’s undeniable that companies investing in the university function within an arms trade that kills majority Black and Brown people in the Global South. How is it possible to do this ethically?

The spokesperson went on to say:

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.

Another important consideration is how the university is providing the infrastructure of future researchers who can further the work of the arms trade. As Cllr Parekh presciently points out:

Our city, and all its anchor institutions, have declared their ambitions for us to become an anti-racist city. That means centring social, economic and climate justice, but it must also mean divesting from fossil fuels and the business of warfare.

A better world is possible but by no means guaranteed; it requires all of us, and especially our institutions, to proactively dismantle the old and build the new. It is essential for our universities to be willing partners in this.

For all the university’s apparent commitment to becoming an anti-racist city, how can they possibly achieve that high bar whilst maintaining close ties to the arms trade?

Culture of colonialism

The University of Sheffield’s close ties to the arms trade is yet further proof, were it needed, that Britain is not post-colonial at all; Britain remains a colonial nation. The terms of engagement may present differently, but the outcome is the same.

Britain still uses its industrial and geo-political power to dominate nations in the Global South. This domination comes not only through bombing, but deals which privilege research, work opportunities and increased profit thresholds that keep higher education locked in a functioning capitalist model.

People are being bombed and killed by missiles that are manufactured by the University of Sheffield’s business partners. How are they anything other than complicit in war crimes?

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