We want our education demilitarised

IssueFebruary - March 2023
Demilitarise Lancaster occupied the Margaret Fell lecture hall at Lancaster university on 14 December, calling for an end to links with the arms industry and supporting the demands of university staff in the UCU union. PHOTO: DEMILITARISE LANCASTER
Feature by Liam Doherty

Universities across the UK draw millions of pounds of revenue from arms-trade-sponsored research, sometimes with explicit weapon-development research aims. Universities turn to the arms industry to make quick profits from consultancy work, while arms companies use universities as a base for recruitment and PR. British universities also have funds – sometimes tens of millions of pounds – invested in arms companies either directly or indirectly through fund managers and banks.

This is what Demilitarise Education (dED) means when we say that UK universities have been militarised.

So far, dED has uncovered over £730 million-worth of partnerships and investments between universities and the arms industry. This is a staggering figure – but it’s nowhere near the total of what we expect to find.


To expose the deadly trade which is filling university coffers, dED is building the world’s first and biggest database of university investments and partnerships with the arms trade.

By ‘arms trade’, we mean the global industry behind the manufacture and sale of weapons and military products. These products include bombs, shells, guns, missiles, aircraft, vehicles, technology systems and more. This massive industry includes not only public and private weapons companies, but also ‘dual use’ companies (whose products have both civilian and military uses) as well as governments’ military departments.

The way that these arms-trade actors relate to public institutions is often referred to as the military-industrial complex – and universities have always played a major role. According to the North American commentator Henry Giroux, when US president Dwight D Eisenhower coined the term ‘military-industrial complex’ in a 1961 speech, one of the drafts of the speech referred instead to the ‘military-industrial-academic complex’.

The resources of universities – their scientific expertise, research capabilities, student recruitment opportunities, and public relations potential – are crucially important to the arms trade, and that is why it is so important to document and understand these relationships.

We do this research in collaboration with our community of peacemakers, students and volunteers from around the world, with the majority being in the UK. We connect on Discord, the online messaging platform. This allows people anywhere to join the conversation around demilitarisation and to contribute their research, as well as to join our weekly workshops and other events.

One of our best research tools is the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. We use FOI requests to get universities to disclose the nature of their partnerships with arms firms, the funding they receive, and anything else relevant to their arms-trade links.

That’s how we found out, for instance, that the University of Bristol accepted £4.6 million from arms companies in the last financial year. That’s also how we discovered that the University of Sheffield maintains recruitment partnerships with 11 arms companies, including BAE Systems, QinetiQ, Cobham, and Thales.

While FOI requests are a great way to gather information, universities can deny them on the basis of exemptions, saying that requests are too burdensome to complete, or that disclosing information would go against their private interests.

These refusals still help in our overall FOI strategy. We learn from previous requests: what information is given or withheld and how responses are worded. For obvious reasons, universities often don’t want to release this information to us; we have to make it as hard as possible for them to deny us access.

Demilitarise UoN die-in disrupts a University of Nottingham (UoN) careers fair to which 18 companies linked to the arms trade had been invited: 17 October 2022. PHOTO: DEMILITARISE UON
Demilitarise UoN die-in disrupts a University of Nottingham (UoN) careers fair to which 18 companies linked to the arms trade had been invited: 17 October 2022. PHOTO: DEMILITARISE UON


The fight against arms-trade presence in universities has been widespread, and right now this movement is brimming with activity. Demilitarisation groups in Bristol, Cambridge, King’s, Lancaster, Nottingham, Oxford, SOAS, UCL and Warwick – to name a few! – have been standing against the militarisation of their universities, using tactics from research to direct action. Most universities have done little or nothing in response.

Universities often have ‘ethical investment policies’. After many of the groups just mentioned staged protests against the presence of arms companies at careers fairs, we are also seeing more universities launch ‘ethical careers policies’. These rarely add up to anything we’d call ‘ethical’.

Many of these policies exclude some companies on the basis of how much of their revenue comes from arms, or the nature of the munitions they make (chemical or cluster weapons, for example), or who their customers are. But these are poor criteria. A full arms exclusion would be the only way to ensure that only ethical partnerships are permitted.

Take, for instance, Rolls-Royce. The company is best known for its cars and engines, but arms sales account for around 23 percent of total revenue. This means that partnerships might be allowed by university policies which set ‘arms sales make up 30 percent or more of total sales’ as the threshold for exclusion.

This is despite the credible and well-documented links between Rolls-Royce and war crimes in Yemen through fighter jet sales to Saudi Arabia. As the British NGO Action on Armed Violence has noted, Rolls-Royce’s market share in the defence sector is so huge, it would be impossible to guarantee any university research does not contribute to weapons development.

Similarly, some universities base the ‘ethics’ of their policies around where companies sell their arms to.

The University of Bedfordshire’s recently-announced ‘ethical careers policy’ excludes any company selling arms to countries placed under UK sanctions. This won’t prevent, for instance, partnerships with BAE Systems, despite the fact that BAE sells F-35 jets, weaponised Protector drones, artillery systems and much more to Israel. BAE also exports Tornado jet aircraft to Saudi Arabia.

These sales are technically legal, as Israel and Saudi Arabia are not under UK sanctions, but both countries use BAE weaponry to wage brutal, criminal wars against the Palestinians and against people in Yemen, respectively.

Being an ally of the UK is not a guarantee that a country is behaving ethically. Not supplying sanctioned countries is therefore not a guarantee that an arms company is behaving ethically.

What universities are offering is not sufficient to tackle the major influence that the arms industry is having on university life.

The only way to fully demilitarise our education is to create a comprehensive ban: no arms trade involvement in research, careers, investments, or any other aspect of the student experience. This is why dED created the Demilitarise Education Treaty to be the basis for comprehensive demilitarisation.

Universities hold undeniable power to shape society. Their research can be a force for good, innovating towards peaceful, sustainable solutions to 21st century challenges. They can help to guide students towards creating a contribution for a better world. Their sizeable financial weight could be invested in companies which enrich the lives of people around the world – not companies which make their profits from weapons and war. This is what we mean when we say we want our education demilitarised.+-