Britain’s top universities have received at least £83m worth of funds from firms involved in the arms trade over the last three years, The Huffington Post UK can disclose.

Data released by the Campaign Against The Arms Trade (CAAT) has revealed the elite Russell Group universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, gain millions in research and sponsorship money from companies which manufacture weapons.

The figures come amid concerns among activists that cash-starved institutions are helping to promote the manufacture of weapons by accepting such funding.

But the Russell Group said universities took pains to make sure all partnerships were "appropriate".

CAAT analysed data obtained under Freedom of Information requests, which asked for the amount of funding for research and from sponsorship the 24 Russell Group universities derived from private arms companies and the ministry of defence's research arms from 2008-11.

Private companies provided £62.8m of the money to the Russell Group universities with the rest coming from the Ministry of Defence.

Of the 18 out of 24 universities that responded, only one, the London School of Economics - said it received no such funds.

Of the others it found Imperial College London received the most funds from government and private military sources at £15.2m, followed by Sheffield and Cambridge, both with £13.7m and Oxford with just over £9m.

Oxford University received research grants worth £319k in 2008 to 2009, £196k from 09-10 and £199k in 10-11 from BAE systems, one of the world’s largest military contractors.

Cambridge University took £75,000 of sponsorship money from GKN, which makes both commercial and defence related aircraft, to fund their GKN Chair of Manufacturing Engineering in 2009.

CAAT told The Huffington Post UK it was a problem for universities to be associated with arms companies because “any link that a university has with an arms company provides that company with a veneer of respectability and sends a message that the arms trade is a legitimate one".

The group is urging military funding for universities to be at the very least debated, raising concerns that institutions are advocating the arms trade by accepting money from companies involved with the military.

Their concerns are shared by ethical group Scientists for Global Responsibility.

Executive Director Dr Stuart Parkinson told The Huffington Post UK: "Arms companies fund university research for three key reasons: to gain a competitive advantage on commercial rivals; to create a sympathetic audience among scientists and engineers; and to recruit the next generation of professionals to develop new weapons systems."

CAAT media coordinator Kaye Stearman told The Huffington Post UK the figures were likely to be an "underestimate" because some universities refused to answer, and others withheld information due to "confidentiality clauses".

“For some universities the funding is a major element in determining research priorities in areas of engineering and science," she added.

Imperial University told The Huffington Post UK their yearly research income was “almost £300m" and the amount it received from companies and organisations in the defence sector represented around one and a half percent of that.

At Cardiff University, BAE, Rolls Royce, the world's second largest provider of defence aero-engine products, and GKN have each sponsored students on an MsC in Lean Operations, for manufacturing managers, in the last three years.

Professor Martin Kitchener, Associate Dean at Cardiff Business School said companies had supplied students from the course. “Those students may or may not have come from the military divisions of those conglomerates. Researchers in the school have conducted research in those companies.

“We have ongoing discussions about ethics within the school and last year we were approached by British American Tobacco looking to put students on our courses and we said no to them.”

CAAT’s Starman said military funding is "more than just another form of commercial sponsorship" and should at least be debated.

"The ethos of education, which is to support learning and thereby create a better educated and more productive society, is undermined by the war, destruction and waste engendered by the manufacture and trade in deadly weaponry."

York University, which has received £3,961,357 since 2008 from arms companies was forced to pass an ethical investment policy in 2009 after controversy about its dealings with the arms trade.

York University graduate Chris, 24, told The Huffington Post UK he thought such companies evaded "moral scrutiny".

"The research conducted at universities helps arms companies to develop weapons which are then sold indiscriminately to governments and armed groups across the world.

"Universities must start to take seriously their duty as institutions of education to promote peace and understanding, not to advance the commercial interests of those who thrive on war and corruption."

A spokesperson for Oxford told The Huffington Post UK the university: "Only enters into funding contracts with companies that abide by relevant UK and international obligations in the area of arms manufacturing, and the University does not accept funding from organisations whose activities would be illegal under UK and international laws".

A Russell Group spokesperson said: "Like all world-class universities Russell Group institutions collaborate with a number of public and private sector companies on a wide range of leading research projects, including in the defence sector. All our universities have robust systems in place to ensure any partnerships are appropriate."

A spokesperson for Cambridge University said they had nothing to add to the Russell Group’s comments.