07/10/2011 12:24 BST | Updated 07/12/2011 05:12 GMT

Arms Companies and Universities: Careers in killing

Education for its own sake is a cause which students have shown they are willing to fight for; they will continue to resist the reorientation of universities towards the needs of arms companies.

Facing huge budgets cuts, many universities will soon be seeking cash-rich sponsors. With ethical questions likely to be deemed less relevant, arms companies looking to increase their influence in higher education will be on the offensive - but students are opposing this infiltration of university and campus life in all its forms.

Last year saw numerous protests against arms companies attempting to recruit students at careers fairs, including at the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambrdge, Bristol, Exeter, Kent and Southampton. Goldsmiths Students Union passed a motion banning all arms companies from campus. Such protests and motions are supported and encouraged by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), as part of its Ban BAE campaign, and similar actions to prohibit arms companies are expected in the coming university year.

Many top universities were revealed in the 2007 Study War No More report as recipients of hundreds of millions of pounds from arms companies in the form of sponsored research. Universities such as Southampton are used as corporate R&D labs for developing new military technologies. Arms companies have their sights set on even greater influence; Professor John Murphy, Head of University Partnerships at BAE Systems - the world's largest weapons producer - has said that the company wishes to "pull together a global academic network to address [its] needs"

But student-led campaigns against the arms trade can be effective - for example the Disarm UCL campaign which focused on unethical investments culminated in victory in late 2009 when UCL sold its shares in Cobham plc.

There have been concerted efforts by students on campuses across the country to challenge university complicity with weapons producers. In late 2010 Queen Mary University agreed to divest their arms shares and Swansea University have passed a motion for ethical investment. In an article in The Lancet in June 2011, Oxford students called for the university to withdraw its £4.5 million investment in arms companies, including £1.4 million in Lockheed Martin, whose cluster bombs are banned under UK law.

The newest area of protest is recruitment. When BAE Systems attempted to "engage students" at an Industrial Maths presentation at the University of Manchester in May, staff and students forced them to abandon the project and the campus. As the most visible evidence of arms companies' presence on campus, careers fairs represent a sitting target for anti-arms trade actions and an effective way for campaigners to raise awareness with fellow students. The fight against the incongruous partnerships between institutions of learning and weapons developers has increasingly become focused here.

Ironically The Guardian, a leader in exposing the activities of BAE Systems - including allegations of corruption, bribery and selling to human rights abusers - was a sponsor of a graduate recruitment event hosting the very same company in London in October 2010. When asked about the event, The Guardian responded that it was "a matter for the Careers Group [University of London] to decide which exhibitors to select."

Considering the University of London Careers Group's own Code of Practice states that it "reserves the right not to advertise deems might be liable to bring the University into disrepute", surely BAE Systems should be excluded? In December the company pleaded guilty to minor charges of false accounting with the judge making damning remarks about BAE's financial arrangements in regard to its 1999 radar sale to Tanzania. BAE sells weapons to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Sri Lanka and other countries classified by the Foreign Office as 'countries of concern.' If associating with and accepting money from such a company does not risk the university's reputation, what does?

Despite this the Careers Group said that it 'could not justify refusing them a presence ' as BAE was a 'major, legitimate employer'. But this argument is flawed; a mere 0.2% of the UK workforce are employed by arms companies to produce weapons for export. What's more, the [technical] skills involved in these jobs are needed by other industries with more socially productive and ethical bases. Significantly Sandy Wilson, MD of General Dynamics UK has acknowledged that alternative energy, for instance, would benefit from skills released via a reduced arms industry.

Education for its own sake is a cause which students have shown they are willing to fight for; they will continue to resist the reorientation of universities towards the needs of arms companies. It remains true that education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.