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.