Jan Jasinski responds to the University’s decision to invest more into arms trading after calls for divestment.
I did not expect my first class at university to be a lesson in lip-service. But that is just what the University of Glasgow has been demonstrating over the past couple of months with its non-response to the Arms Divestment movement on campus.
Last September, a Glasgow Guardian investigation revealed the extent of the University’s investment into some of the world’s leading arms manufacturers. Over £3m has been invested into various companies engaged in the arms sector, including some major power players such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and BAE Systems.
In response to the investigation, several university societies joined to form the Glasgow University Arms Divestment Coalition (GUADC). Over the next several months, the GUADC lobbied the University to divest from these companies. The organization held peaceful protests, plastered the campus with posters rallying for their cause, and ran a successful emailing campaign, getting nearly 7,000 people to sign on, along with an endorsement from the President of the Students Representative Council. The University even promoted the protests on Twitter, using them as an example of student activism on campus.
So how did the University Court respond? They decided to increase the University’s investment in the arms industry and merely asked the companies in question to stop selling arms to countries on the UK’s human rights watchlist.
This is an unfortunate situation, as a university which likes to brand itself as world-changing shouldn’t be profiting from warfare. It is disappointing considering that this is not the University’s first time dealing with a divestment campaign. Memorably, in 2014, the University committed to divesting from fossil fuel industries following a year-long campaign by the UofG community. The decision brought the University lots of positive press at the time, as Glasgow became the first university in Europe to commit to such a move.
However, comparing the Arms Divestment Movement to the Fossil Fuel Movement is unfair, simply because of just how much smaller the University’s investment into arms is, compared to what the fossil fuel investment was. In 2014, when the fossil fuel divestment process began, the University held £18m of investments in that field. The University’s £3m arms investment, while still significant, is significantly smaller from the fossil fuel investment, and only constitutes 1% of the University’s total investment portfolio. Ending these investments is entirely realistic and should not be seen as some pie-in-the-sky scenario.
So why is it so difficult for the University Court to make this decision? I asked the students who have been at the front line of this fight for the past couple of months: a GUADC spokesperson.
It is important to understand that the University’s connections with the Arms industry do not boil down to merely wiring a few pounds to Guns PLC every couple months. “We cannot speculate as to the true nature of the relationship between Higher Education and industry,” the Coalition tells me, “but their appearance at careers fairs and throughout engineering, computing, and physics courses show how pervasive these companies are in academia.”
Speculation or not, it is true that a very significant amount of research funding flows into Glasgow from the arms industry. Currently, the University is receiving at least £30m in Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) grants from military companies. The most significant of these grants is a £21m quantum technologies research program, funded by a veritable smorgasbord of various arms companies, including Leonardo, QinetiQ, and the ever-present BAE Systems. It is the largest EPSRC grant the University currently holds and forms 14% of all the grants combined.
The University is approaching this issue from a very pragmatic perspective. It cares less about the moral impact of its investments and more about what these investments can potentially grant students, whether that is a quick placement in a job in the arms industry, or a multi-million-pound research grant. That is an understandable position, considering the current job market. The University has also stated that the funds raised from these investments allow for scholarships for lower-income students.
So, let us be pragmatic about this too: back in 2014, UofG’s announcement of its fossil fuel divestment program brought the University international attention and coverage in national newspapers. Imagine the amount of positive press an Arms Divestment program would bring the University. It would be a good change of pace from landing on the BBC News front page due to our catastrophic Covid-19 response. At the very least, the University should increase transparency around its investment practices, as the lack of clarity around this subject is what caused outrage in the first place.
What happens next? The Coalition regrouped over the summer and is ready for another year of campaigning. Their main goal is to ensure that the University’s investment fund is not just controlled by a group of bureaucrats, but that the students themselves have a direct voice in the University’s investment decisions. The GUADC stated: “We are confident that the Senior Management Group will recognise that it is irresponsible, untenable, and against the University’s interests to maintain their current position.”