The University of Sheffield made a major announcement on June 6th: it has secured £43million in funding to build a new research facility for the aerospace manufacturing industry. Fantastic, you might think. New jobs at a time of seemingly never-ending economic depression? Exactly what we need. More publicity and a better international standing for the University? Great. Professor Keith Ridgway, Executive Dean of the facility, has even described it as “the most advanced factory in the world”. That all sounds brilliant, right?
Wrong. Beneath the glossy publicity and beyond the proud announcements from the University lies a nastier story. This factory, “AMRC Factory 2050”, is simply the latest chapter in a long story of the University of Sheffield’s cosy relationship with the arms trade. Take a closer look at the companies that have committed to supporting the project: Boeing, Airbus, Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems. Any of those names sound familiar? Boeing is the world’s second-largest arms producer; Airbus manufactures military aircraft; Rolls-Royce engines power approximately 25% of the world’s military aircraft and the entire UK nuclear submarine fleet. BAE Systems are especially notorious and perhaps overshadow all of the above with their military endeavours: they are the world’s third-largest arms producer, with 95% of their business in the military; they have been investigated for corruption and bribery; and in 2012 the chairman of BAE said he was “proud” to sell arms to countries with notoriously bad human rights records, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The global arms trade has a huge human impact: each year: enough bullets are produced to kill every single person on the planet twice. In the light of this, the University of Sheffield’s pride in furthering relationships with the companies that perpetuate this situation seems questionable at the very least.
The University of Sheffield, like most other prestigious institutions of its kind, is quick to shout about the social good that it does. One of its ‘guiding principles’ states that it is proud to “stand up for the vulnerable”. In the light of its relationships with arms companies, the statement seems laughable. Forgive me if I’m an idealist, but I was under the impression that universities were sites of education, not factories for weapons production and arms trade recruitment. The arms trade is subsidised by the UK government to the tune of some £700 million per year. At a time when educational establishments are continually told that their own government funding will be cut, and students face tuition fees reaching £9,000 per year, the continued subsidisation of the arms trade by our government seems to me something that universities should be rallying against, not lapping up with joy.
Sadly, however, it would seem that those in positions of power in our universities share the government’s priorities: supporting the export of, and research into, weapons with the potential to kill huge numbers of civilians indiscriminately. Is this really more important than funding the education of our own young people, and more important that funding research into and development of infrastructure that could deal with far greater crises facing humanity today, such as the threat posed by global climate change? Students such as myself are told that the government does not care about us: student voices and demonstrations are continually ignored. Yet all it takes is one powerful arms dealer to whisper a word in a government official’s, or a university vice-chancellor’s, ear, and the subsidies and support continue.
Universities should have a responsibility towards the students that keep them going. It does not matter how much rhetoric of positive social contribution a university spews out: relationships with arms companies delegitimise it all. Choosing an industry that the government subsidises whilst cutting eduction; an industry that contributes to enormous harm around the world; and an industry that follows money alone with no regard for the value of human life – for a university to choose this, instead of the welfare of its own students, including international students from the very countries in which these arms are used by governments to repress civilians, makes me ashamed to have handed over my student loan to such an institution.
There can be no legitimacy to the kind words and proud announcements that the University of Sheffield makes about how much it values its students and its contribution to the wider community whilst it retains such close relationships with the global arms trade. It is time for the executive board to have a long hard think about the real meaning of education, the real meaning of value, and to sever its links with the arms trade once and for all.