The American political activist and journalist Chris Hedges believes that corporate executives, and the ‘armies of bureaucrats’ and ‘careerists’ which serve them, are ‘cold and disconnected’, ‘docile’, ‘compliant’, and ‘assure themselves of their own goodness through their private acts as husbands, wives, mothers, and fathers … It is moral schizophrenia. They erect the walls to create an isolated consciousness. They make the lethal goals of ExxonMobil or Goldman Sachs or Raytheon or insurance companies possible’.[i] Erich Fromm’s classic 1956 study The Art of Loving argued that capitalism – and, we might add, the arms trade – ‘needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or conscience – yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit into the social machine without friction; who can be guided without force, led without leaders, prompted without aim – expect the one to make good, to be on the move, to function, to go ahead’.[ii]
Joining one of many such armies, University College London Provost Malcolm Grant visited the Arab Spring nations with David Cameron in 2011 to (primarily) sell arms during the ongoing forms of state terror. Grant’s decision followed an interesting and remarkable history, little-known on UCL’s campus today and rarely discussed at the time.
After a two year student campaign, on January 1st 2009 UCL implemented an ethical investment policy, ensuring divestment from the arms firm Cobham PLC, a major supplier of Israeli arms and whose Hellfire missiles were regularly used in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cobham also manufactured parts of weapons system used by Israel in its bombing raids in Lebanon in 2006. After a freedom of information request revealed that UCL had £900,000 invested in Cobham (total assets invested: £92.3m; arms shares as percentage of total investments: 0.9) and £746,000 invested in Smiths Group (which contributed to the manufacturing of Apaches and F16s), the ‘Disarm UCL’ campaign was formed, which rapidly became extremely popular on campus, both with students and later with the university’s ethical investment review committee.[iii] The university even ran a unique, exciting degree course for students to take, an MSc in Systems Engineering Management, ‘a joint development between BAE SYSTEMS and University College London to produce a programme which combines academic rigour and practical experience in the Aerospace and Defence Industry’.[iv] Extracting this from the standardised and scrupulously misleading rhetoric of ‘excellence’ and so forth, this translates into ‘a course which funnels resources and ingenuity straight into the coffers of a private arms manufacturer’. UCL soon became known as ‘the Gower Street gunrunners’, and Disarm UCL campaigners were often seen in the Main Quad on campus. Around the same time, St Andrews, Goldsmiths and SOAS all made steps towards cutting ties with the arms trade. With UCL’s admirable history of opposing discrimination, its strong funding of human rights abuses came as something of a surprise to students and faculty. The university also seems to be regressing on a number of other fronts, failing to take action to stop modern-day slavery conditions in its international campus in Qatar, where migrant workers are paid less than £180 a month for 12-15-hour shifts and endure persistent human rights violations.[v]
In late May 2016, a Freedom of Information request of mine about UCL’s connections with the arms trade was been published.[vi] Despite the university implementing an ‘ethical investment’ policy from 2009 onwards as a result of Disarm UCL’s efforts, this only relates to stocks and shares and it currently seems to apply far less stringent ethical criteria when deciding on research and consultancy contracts, enjoying links with a large number of the UK’s (and some of the US’s) arms companies. The response to the FOI request was given by Spenser Crouch, Data Protection & Freedom of Information Administrator at UCL. Crouch’s response included funds received over the last five financial years from arms organisations. In addition: ‘Non-MoD funders include overseas Governmental Defence Agencies, notably Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). For example the DARPA make up 50% of the non MoD-related income reported here, however £1.25m (70%) of this is for research into brain function relating to injury recovery’. Finally: ‘The data covers 126 projects (including Mod-related), 57% of which are studentships. Studentships account for 55% of the MoD-related income overall, and 15% of the income from the other funders including the large DARPA projects’.
The files revealed that from 2010-15, UCL had received over £1.3m from the Ministry of Defence and related departments for various projects, with £340,000 coming from the Atomic Weapons Establishment, £880,000 from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), and £70,000 from the MoD.
During the same period, UCL received an astonishing £3.6m from the arms trade, bringing the total military-related funding to £4.9m. More worryingly, the amount has in fact increased annually from 2010, beginning at £623,000 in 2010-11, then rising to £881,000 in 2011-12, £1.02m in 2012-13, £1.14m in 2013-14, and £1.28m in 2014-15. The companies funding the university include Aeroflex, Airbus Defence & Space, Airbus Weapons Establishment, Babcock, BAE Systems (including BAE Systems Marine Ltd, BAE Systems Surface Ships Ltd), BMT Defence Services Limited, EADS, Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, Rolls-Royce Power Engineering, Thales (including Thales Uk Ltd, Thales Netherland B.V.), and TRL Technology. From 2010-15, UCL received £195,000 from BAE Systems, £1.8m from DARPA, £67,000 from Airbus, £19,000 from Halliburton (which works closely with the arms industry), £236,000 from Lockheed Martin, and £625,000 from Thales.
The FOI request included the following statement: ‘I would wholeheartedly encourage the university to adopt an ethical investment policy that excludes the arms trade, and would appreciate it if you could tell me if this is something that the university is working towards’. UCL’s response included no comment to this effect.
As countless other examples reveal, the modern university is concerned above all else with profit, and is more than willing to align itself with abusive regimes and rogue corporations, supporting unethical firms through investment, research, recruitment and inviting representatives to give talks on campus. Universities are increasingly becoming militarised spaces. University career services – those stale and intensely unhelpful entities – promote arms companies and invite them to careers fairs, ‘advising’ students away from applying their skills in more ethical, renewal job markets. Universities invest their financial reserves and endowment funds, either by buying shares directly or investing in funds. Through either of these means, their funds are often invested in arms companies, supporting them financially while also giving the arms trade something of a ‘social license’, since universities are typically well-respected (quasi-)public bodies.
Not only does investment in the arms trade have nothing at all to do with education, but ethical investment funds have been shown to be more profitable. Throughout the 2000s, the Church of England’s £4.3 billion ethical fund was the second best performers out of over 1,000 funds.