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The £1bn deals between the UK Universities and the arms trade reviewed

A new report by Demilitarise Education, a UK organisation founded in 2017, has found that military and defence partnerships on UK university campuses are worth over £1bn. The lucrative nature of these relationships is demonstrated by money flowing between parties in the form of academic and research partnerships, as well as investments. However, the organisation expects that the £1bn figure is far below the total amount of these partnerships.

Research partnerships account for 55% of the total figure, with funding from weapons-producing companies and government bodies for military technology, aeronautics or other arms-related projects. Universities partner directly with arms companies like BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce or QinetiQ. The remaining 45% comes from monetary investments, with universities investing in arms companies either directly or indirectly through third-party investments or fund managers. Consultancy fees and academic partnerships make up the remaining portion of the figure.

The universities with the most significant involvement in the arms trade are Bristol and Birmingham, with partnerships valued above £50m. King’s College London, the University of Sheffield and the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine have partnerships valued around £40m, with the universities of Nottingham, Glasgow, Cambridge and University College London close behind. However, many universities have refused to be transparent, and as such, the £1bn figure is just the tip of the iceberg. Demilitarise Education aims to compile research on every university in the country by September 2023.

The increasing involvement of the arms trade in universities can be partly explained in financial terms. Universities have become increasingly profit-driven, and the deep pockets of the arms industry give ample opportunity for exploitation. This commercialisation process has changed the way universities view their role and how knowledge is produced, as university research and education activities have become a market into which arms companies can bid for space. The UK government has also fostered research ties between universities and the arms industry when privatising publicly-owned research laboratories.

Moreover, the arms industry makes its profits from resource exploitation, conflict, and the building-up of weapons reserves. Research that could fuel peaceful, sustainable innovation can easily be crowded out, particularly given that defence research has more links to security policy-making than research on human security. The instrumentalisation of education undermines universities’ value-free and social-benefit model of knowledge production.

Some universities, such as Bedfordshire, Wrexham Glyndŵr and University of the Arts London, have taken steps to end their partnerships with the arms trade, but many have only partially demilitarised and created exclusions for some companies based on criteria like where their arms are sold or the type of weapons produced.

In response, Demilitarise Education has created the Demilitarise Education Treaty, a document that guides comprehensive demilitarisation. The aim is to create a global precedent where it is unacceptable for universities to partner with the defence sector.”