Tired of Empty Gestures
The mask really and truly slipped for British universities over the last year. No number of welfare campaigns or Black Lives Matter statements were going to convince us that universities cared more about their students’ lives and wellbeing, than the profits they made from tuition fees and half empty student halls, with students still mandated to pay their rent in full.
But students fought back, refusing to be treated like cash cows by institutions committed to a neo-liberal vision of education. We witnessed occupations and rent strikes, and peer galvanising on a scale we haven’t seen in a long time. The arms trade might seem a long way off from rent strikes, but there’s a crucial link: universities insistence on prioritising profit over people.
A Colonial History
It’s no secret that British universities have historical links with both colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. Glasgow University pledged to pay £20m in reparations after discovering historical links with the slave trade in 2019, and All Souls College at Oxford paid £100,000 two years earlier in recognition of funding received from slave owner Christopher Codrington. The University of Oxford still has a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the man responsible for the colonisation of South Africa, and the subsequent neo-imperialist exploits within that region through the diamond trade.
The manufacture and trade of weapons was crucial to the success of colonial invasion historically and today, where the arms trade is directly responsible for the desecration of large parts of the Middle East, as well as ensuring instability through conflict and corruption throughout the Global South, by selling weapons to corrupt and tyrannical governments. The link this has to Higher Education is a crude one: multiple British universities have direct financial ties with arms companies, resulting in millions of pounds of funding and research investment. The partnerships are most obvious at institutions with engineering departments, where these departments are often majority, or entirely, funded by arms companies and the Ministry of Defence. But liberal arts institutions are complicit too: take Goldsmiths University of London for example. An institution internationally renowned for its research into social justice still invests in the arms trade through lecturers’ pensions and has an estimated £99,679 worth of financial investments with Israel alone (one of the world’s leading arms exporters).
A Shared Struggle
The disregard universities have for the harm they commit globally is represented in the bleak reality of campuses now, as hot spots for police brutality, transphobia, and rape culture. But universities cannot continue to make empty hashtags, PR campaigns, and statements intending to address the societal ills reproduced on our campuses, without grappling with the reality that their money funds these oppressions abroad, via the arms trade. The University of Nottingham, one of the universities who released a Black Lives Matter statement last summer, brands itself as a ‘global’ university whilst taking in just under £6 million pounds of investment from the same companies responsible for global insecurity and destruction. They also started a ‘Better Together’ campaign to draw light to microaggressions less than a year after students at the institution (including BAME, women, and disabled students) were physically assaulted by BAE Systems’ private security for protesting their presence at a careers fair.
What does ‘Black Lives Matter’ mean to an institution invested in the companies ensuring black death globally? What meaningful stand can any institution take against police brutality when it allows for said brutality on their campuses? What use is a consent campaign for a campus that refuses to acknowledge their participation in rape as a weapon of war?
The struggle of the student in a neoliberal institution is shared with the peoples of the Global South resisting occupation, wars, and genocide. We must take a global approach to campus based liberation campaigns, and resist the ‘woke-washing’ universities are increasingly taking part in. Now, more than ever, is the time to build meaningful solidarity across campaigns, campuses, and borders. Demilitarising must be a priority for every student campaigner and activist, as militarism has a stake in all forms of violence and harm. British institutions; be it universities, the police, or the government may not care about us. But we are able to care for each other, and fighting for demilitarisation is one way we can do that.