Fatal Collaborations

A guest post from Chris Rossdale, issued in the midst of the latest round of UK university strikes over pensions, pay, precarity, workload and inequality. Chris is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Bristol. He writes about militarism, race and colonialism, social movements and political resistance. His book Resisting Militarism was published last year with Edinburgh University Press, and will be the topic of a Disorder symposium coming to a screen near you soon. You can also find Chris on Twitter here.


In January 2020, hundreds of students at SOAS staged a walk out, joining staff on the steps of the Bloomsbury campus to protest against yet another round of budget cuts. Once again, the institution was at the front line in the long struggle against the neoliberal restructuring of British universities, its position here an enduring product of the collision between aggressive management and well-organised staff and students. This time, administrators had announced that a budget shortfall would be filled by cancelling unfunded research leave for lecturers. Activists expect that this will also entail slashing the hours of sessional teaching staff, the ‘fractionals’ whose inspiring and successful unofficial strike action in 2014 presaged the more determined University and College Union (UCU) action we see today.

SOAS also made headlines last year when students learned that the institution was taking money from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in return for providing academic expertise and training to the British armed forces. Research by the Decolonizing Our Minds society revealed that SOAS has received at least £400,000 since the end of 2016 to deliver ‘Regional Study Weeks’ to the MoD’s ‘Defence Cultural Specialist Unit’ (DCSU). Currently active in at least 22 countries including Afghanistan, Chad and Chile, the DCSU is similar to the widely-criticised Human Terrain System developed by the US to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It involves the MoD supplementing its forces with specialists in the culture of societies where British operations are active, in pursuit of a gentler form of domination in ‘rapidly expanding neo-colonial context[s]’. The Regional Study Weeks are opportunities for academics to teach DCSU staff about the social and political contexts of particular regions, while highlighting the resulting ‘implications for UK military missions’. SOAS academics made up the largest portion of those teaching, but the weeks have included faculty from LSE, St Andrews, Cambridge, KCL, UCL, Lancaster and De Montfort. As the students’ report states, this academic collaboration with the armed forces facilitates a project that, at best, ‘is useful for crafting more inclusive forms of imperial governance’, and at worst, is used to ‘either destroy or “neutralize” potential sites of resistance with insider information’.

Reports of SOAS’s links with the MoD caused a scandal, but this apparent deviation masked a deeper reality. Collaborations between British universities and military institutions are no aberration – they are the overwhelming norm. A recent report by students at the University of Oxford revealed that the institution’s research council grants active in 2019 included over £80m linked to the MoD, and that nearly 40% of its £420m in science council grants are paired with military-related bodies. BAE Systems has spent millions partnering with over ten universities developing new technologies for stealth drones. Thales, Europe’s third largest arms company, are proud to announce that they are involved with over £146m in Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC) funded research, working with over 20 institutions. My own institution, Bristol, received £3m from the Atomic Weapons Establishment between 2010 and 2016, while researchers at Surrey have worked with Lockheed Martin on improving components in armored vehicles. These examples are indicative, not exhaustive; very few institutions can claim to be free of these connections. Universities disingenuously attempt to emphasise the civilian applications of this research in their public-facing communications; however the reality is that the British university system is intimately entangled in systems of military production.

This research funding shapes the kinds of education universities deliver, especially in STEM subjects. Student projects, at all levels, are often attached to funded research within their department. Work with arms companies is routine in many engineering, physics and maths departments, with scholarships and internships on offer for strong students. At doctoral level, much of the research funded through EPSRC Doctoral Training Centres has military applications. University careers fairs are stuffed with arms companies, all desperate to attract the next generation of engineers and scientists, and happy to pay good money for a chance to do so. Social studies departments are also implicated, but are more likely to have teaching relationships with the armed forces than with the arms industry. Universities including Plymouth, Southampton and KCL are proud to announce their contributions to military training programs, while Wolverhampton offers an entire degree in ‘Armed Forces’, specifically targeted to those planning a career in the services, and during which students must serve as member of the Reserves or Officer Training Corps.

Also implicated is USS, the pension scheme whose future is integral to the current UCU dispute. The USS has a massive £243m invested in Raytheon, ‘the world’s premier missile maker’. Raytheon equipment has been at the heart of every Western military intervention in recent times. It has made headlines in the last few years because its signature Paveway IV guided bombs, manufactured in Harlow and Glenrothes, have been widely deployed by Saudi Arabian forces in Yemen, including repeated attacks on civilian targets. USS also invests in Thales. Thales is a leader in radar and sensor systems and one of the big players in the enforcement of Europe’s racist border regime. It provides maritime surveillance systems for Frontex operations and the security system for the port at Calais, and is currently developing border surveillance infrastructure in order to track and control migrants before they reach Europe. Thales is also involved in the production of the Watchkeeper Drone, the sale of missiles to Saudi Arabia, and was the company who deployed missiles on top of blocks of flats during the 2012 Olympics. Both Raytheon and Thales (alongside BAE Systems) have recently been referred to the International Criminal Court, due to their role in facilitating Saudi war crimes in Yemen. The returns on our pensions are determined by the fortunes of these companies.

None of what I’ve outlined is particularly new. British universities have always been close to military power and complicit in imperialism. They have long helped to train and develop military personnel and technology, many were built from the profits of colonialism and slavery, and a host of academic disciplines – not least my own, International Relations – were formed and reformed through the imperatives of empire. SOAS’s links with the DCSU are entirely consistent with the institution’s longstanding role in providing the intellectual resources for British colonial rule. But while there are lengthy histories here, the contemporary situation must also be viewed in the contemporary context of neoliberalism, marketisation, and austerity, all of which celebrate and depoliticize partnership with industry, especially when it comes with cash. Across both research and education, the desire to attract investment and funding shapes the priorities of departments and institutions. We see a directing and disciplining of research and teaching focus towards military ends, given extra intensity thanks to the need for academics to work on projects that can demonstrate ‘impact’.

There has been little to no discussion of the role played by the military and arms industry in British universities in the context of the current UCU strikes over pay, pensions, casualization and workloads. Thus far, these issues and their related struggles have remained almost entirely separate. It often seems that, in a context of permanent austerity, there is a reticence to challenge anything that actually puts money into universities. A reticence that sometimes turns into hostility – it doesn’t help our cause to complain about the funding that we do have, the value our pensions do generate. The problem is that such arguments reproduce the logic of austerity, which in the absence of government funding urges a scramble for whatever resources can be found. We have to resist an austerity mindset: this isn’t just a struggle about the amount of money that’s in universities – it’s about the social role we want the university to play. And it’s an empty fight and a cruel victory if we win better conditions off the back of Britain’s martial, imperial economy. Indeed, it retreads the racist settlements through which British social democracy emerged off the profits of colonial extraction.

It has been heartening to hear strong voices in the UCU insist that we cannot resist neoliberalism through nostalgia for the pre-austerity university. There is a tendency sometimes to romanticize, to hearken back to an institution that was slower, less pressured, more committed to scholarly integrity, while missing the British university’s longtime entrenchment in race and class privilege. We have to imagine the university otherwise. There’s a related tendency to talk about the ‘militarization’ of the university, in a manner that invokes a noble and pacific institution that has been corrupted by war. But universities were always products of and vehicles for warfare. We can’t be nostalgic. We have to fight for something new.

Rather than consider how to make the university pure (again), we should therefore ask how we can recognize the university as a site of struggle in these contexts. How do we draw opposition to military collaboration into the fights that bring us to the picket lines – to recognize their common contentions with neoliberalism, casualization, racist and heteropatriarchal power – while understanding the potential tensions between those struggles? How can we fight for a public university that isn’t reliant on arms capital and complicit in war production? These questions are valuable not because such a university is possible in the current climate, but because how we approach them will fundamentally shape the kinds of movements we’re able to build.

As is so often the case, it is students who are leading the way. They have done much of the research on university links with the military and arms industry, and within institutions it is their campaigns pushing for an end to these relationships. Those of us who work in these places might ask why this is so often left to students, but we can also make sure to support their initiatives. Anyone on the SOAS picket line will get just such an opportunity on Tuesday 10th March, when there will be a whole day of workshops focused on militarism. However, we also have to do more to challenge our institutions about the origins of research funding and the pressures this exerts on teaching. Local UCU branches can begin by using Freedom of Information Requests to learn more about what research is being conducted, and on whose behalf. With respect to USS, a campaign aimed at pressuring the fund to divest from fossil fuel companies launched recently, and there is no reason a related push for arms company divestment could not accompany this. Goldsmiths UCU just became the first branch to officially support USS divestment from the arms trade; more must follow.  These are long and difficult tasks. They will be awkward, they will be thankless, they will fail far more often than they succeed. They will involve connecting movements and struggles in inconvenient and sometimes contradictory ways. Nevertheless they are absolutely essential if we are to have any hope of making these martial collaborations unacceptable, and continue the vital work of imagining the university anew.

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