Students chase arms company off campus

Article published: Wednesday, May 25th 2011

A presentation by arms manufacturer BAE Systems at the University of Manchester was abandoned yesterday following protests by staff and students angry at the company’s presence on campus.

Representatives of BAE were invited by the Mathematics Department to take part in an “industrial maths workshop” yesterday morning, intended to provide students with “experience in engaging with industry”. An email sent around the department also noted that another intention of the day was for the arms dealer “to fund a (sic) MSc project in which the supervisor will receive £500 to his/he r research budget”.

A member of staff informed the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), who in turn contacted students at the University. Protesters first handed out leaflets criticising BAE and their presence on the campus, before blocking the entrances of the intended seminar room by lying down with placards with information about the arms trade shaped like tombstones. After several attempts to switch rooms for the meeting, the seminar was called off and BAE staff left the city.

BAE has been heavily criticised in recent years, with accusations of bribery and corruption from groups such as the Serious Fraud Office. They also supply arms to several dictatorships, including some currently involved in repressing protest throughout the Middle East. They recently described their biggest customer, Saudi Arabia, as an area of “increasing opportunities” because of “regional tensions”.

Abi Haque, of CAAT’s Universities Network, told Mule: “Campaign Against Arms Trade believes that the involvement of education with the arms industry raises serious ethical questions about the role and purpose of university education.

“It is disturbing that universities are so closely involved with arms companies like BAE Systems, who export weapons indiscriminately worldwide, including to human rights abusers such as Bahrain, Libya and Saudi Arabia, and who have been investigated for corruption in many countries.”

The University of Manchester has extensive financial and research links with the arms industry. Between 2001-2006, £15,812,903 was received by the University for arms company research. More recent figures are unavailable because CAAT’s Freedom of Information requests were refused. Yesterday’s seminar followed a successful workshop in January, after which arms company Thales funded a PhD in probability theory.

The University has also been a partner organisation in the BAE-led FLAVIIR programme, which researches the future development of unmanned air vehicles, commonly referred to as drones. Drones have been controversially used in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with several British police forces interested in their future implementation.

Amanda Walters, the University of Manchester Student Union’s Campaigns Officer, said: “We protested because we do not believe that the University should do research or take money from BAE Systems. This is because BAE Systems is the largest arms company in the world and it sells arms to countries with poor human rights records. They have also faced legal proceedings for corruption and bribery.

Furthermore, by aiding BAE Systems our large Bahraini community on campus have seen their families and friends persecuted back home with products that our University have helped to make.”

Several Bahraini students in Manchester recently had their scholarships stripped by their government after spies spotted them protesting in the city.

Links to the arms trade are commonplace amongst the UK’s universities. York, Newcastle, UCL and Southampton have all been shown to have extensive links, while CAAT’s Study War no More report identified at least 26 institutions in total involved in research and investment with arms companies. This is likely an underestimate, said Haque: “it is highly possible that there are a lot more universities involved with BAE or the arms trade.” BAE has also begun working in schools, including using LEGO to encourage children to develop the skills it needs to develop weapons.

In a statement, the University told Mule: “BAE were invited onto the campus to make a presentation during a one-day Maths & Industry workshop. The University of Manchester has a long history of constructive engagement with industry.

“Leading research-intensive universities such as Manchester have a responsibility, to engage with leading commercial organisations to address together the most pressing societal issues, and to enhance the employment prospects of our students.”

Tom Fox

More: Education, News


  1. I expect BAE will have no trouble filling its graduate vacancies.

    By the way, universities are funded from taxes on everything and everybody, not just those on kind and caring nurses, Guardian journalists and wind farm employees.

    The pornography, arms, tobacco and oil industries and their employees pay taxes too to help fund Manchester University.

    Funny how students never seem to want to boycott this cash.

    As for staff protests at BAE, they should quit their jobs if they are unhappy at anyone or any company being present on the campus. Nobody forces them to work there. Too many university staff behave as if they own the university rather than just being its hired hands paid for by everyone.

    Comment by simon on May 26, 2011 at 1:11 pm
  2. I think the point was there are better industries for the university to invest in either through research or other areas (i.e. funding).

    It is vaild that staff who are passionate about what they do consider the applications of their work. To just quit would not actually stop academia expand the possibilities of weapons systems which are exported to countries we as a country then end up putting an embargo on… I.e. Libya.

    Or in the same spirit should everyone who didn’t like their government in Egypt/Libya etc just have applied for aslyum and left their own country instead of bettering it and protesting Simon?

    Comment by A on May 26, 2011 at 1:57 pm
  3. It is valid for staff to consider the applications of their work, but they are not the owners of the university, merely hired hands. If they don’t like what the univesity does they can protest as much as they like, but in their own time and on their own property, not in time the public is paying for and on public property.

    We pay university staff to teach, do research etc, not to protest.

    Employees who protest in their employers time and on their employers property are usually disciplined and/or sacked. That’s what the university should do. Pay should be docked too.

    Comment by simon on May 26, 2011 at 8:21 pm
  4. Without students and staff (and the general public) holding public institutions to account anything could happen. Like investments in tobbacco, which most universities now do not take part in because of an understanding that they do not want to condone or involve themselves in an unethical industry. This change was brought about by this exact type of action.

    The University is a public institution and should therefore be held to account by the student and staff body.

    Would you ban the Student Union as well Simon? They frequently pass motions to put pressure on the university to create change and staff members are involved in this process of campaigning for change. Should all students and staff not happy with every aspect of the universities conduct quit or get kicked off campus?!

    Many of the staff were not aware of the applications of their work or the nature of companies like BAE Systems and are not comfortable with the ethics of part of their work. Scientists and academics have always been massive catalysts for change. This is democracy at its best – people are being informed and if they feel strongly they can campaign for change. The staff member was there to generate debate and conversation and had been wanting to raise questions to the BAE staff – it’s what we should all expect from an academic. Questioning is not a crime nor is providing information about the arms trade and BAE Systems.

    Comment by A on May 27, 2011 at 10:56 am
  5. Why should the university be held to account by the ‘student and staff body’?

    The staff are merely hired hands. Employees do not hold their employers to account. They do as they are told or leave to find alternative employment.

    The students are merely customers of the university. They have certain rights as customers but not the right to say how the university is run or who it does business with. Of course, they have the right to withdraw their custom if they don’t agree with the university’s actions.

    The University of Manchester is accountable to the public which owns it via the government which reperesents them. Students and staff need to realise this. They have no special rights merely because they attend the place as either employees or customers.

    Comment by simon on May 27, 2011 at 8:52 pm
  6. Is Simon joking? Who says that employees can’t hold employers to account? They can and in my view must. And now that our current Western society has commodified education and rendered students consumers (which in my view is horrid)we can at least argue that universities need to listener to their customers more than ever. But in any case demonstrating against the powers is all part of Christian discipleship and Speak, at least, is a Christian based network.

    Comment by Roger Haydon Mitchell on May 31, 2011 at 3:12 pm
  7. I think it is rather a strange idea to think of the members of the university as “hired hands” and “customers”. The University is not a company it is a Charter Institution, and our Charter clearly involves academic staff and students as part of our governance. The University is more a collection of people and a continuity of academic tradition than it is a collection of material assets. Students should be regarded as “customers” to student housing and catering. But to regard their education as a “purchase” misses the point. Students are members of the university participating in the process of education.

    So yes of course it is the duty of academics and students to raise ethical issues about the governance and activities of the university.

    Comment by Bill Lionheart on June 7, 2011 at 8:59 am

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