A massive student movement is demanding that universities stop fueling the global war machine

Activists say the arms industry has ‘infiltrated’ campuses through multimillion dollar contracts. Now, they’re calling for an end to military links to higher education.
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People hold banners as students build a protest encampment in support of Palestinians, at the University of Southern California’s Alumni Park in Los Angeles, California, U.S., April 24, 2024.

REUTERS/Zaydee Sanchez

Tent cities have sprouted up at university campuses around the world, from New York City to Berlin to Vancouver to Sydney, with students demanding an end to university ties to arms groups and financial divestment from companies linked to Israel’s war in Gaza.

“We’re answering the call to camp in complicit universities,” says Ali Salman, a student organizer at Concordia University in Montreal. He spoke to Analyst News on behalf of a coalition of students from Concordia and nearby McGill University, just after setting up protest encampments at McGill.

The student group is demanding an end to the universities’ multimillion dollar investments and ties to Israeli institutions and companies profiting from the war. (Concordia University declined to comment for this story. McGill University did not respond to Analyst News’ request for comment.)

The recent protests, which have seen large police presence and hundreds of arrests in the United States alone, are the most recent example of a broader movement to cut military ties from higher education. Across the globe, arms groups fund postsecondary research and pay universities to recruit students and promote jobs on campus, while educational institutions also invest in companies which have shares in the defense sector.

The current movement shows these links are growing increasingly unpopular.

In the U.K., the known value of these relationships is in the range of almost 2 billion pounds (about $2.5 billion), according to Demilitarise Education, a British nonprofit group that tracks these links in the U.K. and advocates for an end to university collaboration in the global arms trade.

Meanwhile, American universities are bringing in millions of dollars each year through defense contracts and grants directly linked to the U.S. Department of Defense. Major defense companies such as Lockheed Martin have poured millions into campuses for recruitment, research and financial assistance.

Higher education enabling global conflict

Movements are gaining steam to call for an end to these links as the world grows increasingly volatile and at risk of large-scale conflict, as evidenced by the Gaza protest encampments rapidly multiplying across the globe. 

For Demilitarise Education, this has long been a concern.

“We are at the greatest risk we’ve ever been at of conflict coming into our country,” says Jinsella Kennaway, the organization’s co-founder and executive director. But while working toward peace is considered “naive,” she says, it’s governments’ actions and policies that are pushing the world away from that goal.

“We’re saying peace isn’t possible while at the same time selling weapons to the people who are killing people,” she says. 

“We’re saying peace isn’t possible while at the same time selling weapons to the people who are killing people.”

A 2018 report from The Guardian found that nearly one-third of British arms exports over the previous decade went to countries on Britain’s own human rights watch list.

She points to Defence and Security Equipment International, one of the world’s largest weapons fairs. The event is hosted by the U.K., which in 2019 invited representatives from Saudi Arabia to exhibit and purchase weapons — even as the country led a deadly bombing campaign in Yemen, enabled by billions of pounds worth of British arms.

These practices drain public funds and further violence, Kennaway says. “There’s this real hypocrisy around how we’re trying to approach peace development through violent methods of militarism. This militaristic thinking … has infiltrated our education system.”

REUTERS/Mike Blake
Protesters gather at an encampment in support of Palestinians in Gaza, on the campus of the University of California, Irvine on April 30, 2024.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

For example, Demilitarise Education’s database shows the University of Edinburgh received 4 million British pounds from defense companies to perform research last year to build better surveillance systems. The University of Edinburgh declined to comment.

Instead of building ties between educational campuses and military industry groups, Kennaway says universities should promote thinking about ways to address the root causes for conflict, such as the competition for resources.

“Peace actually is possible,” she says. “Anyone whose heart is aching looking at the devastation of the conflicts around the world will agree that it is time that we use our educational capacity … to find solutions beyond military violence.”

The American youth anti-war group Dissenters, which calls for an end to military ties with college campuses, said in 2021 that hundreds of universities in the country maintain contacts with American defense companies to support internships, campus buildings and recruit students.

New York-based investigative journalist Indigo Olivier has reported on the defense industry’s links to U.S. college campuses. She found U.S. universities receive massive grants, ranging from the hundreds of thousands to the millions or more, from defense contractors and through the Defense Department to work on research including weapon designs, prototypes and testing.

While Olivier believes “the university can’t be untangled from the military” in the U.S., “it’s really important if we don’t like what’s happening with our arms abroad, that we take a look at how we contribute to that as students, as professors, as researchers.”

An opportunity to shift the status quo

While the relationship between higher education and the military industry is deeply entrenched, Olivier says the growth of student protests since the Oct. 7 attack is a good sign.

Some groups in American universities have recently passed resolutions to divest from Israel, including the student government at the University of California Davis. In a non-binding referendum, students at the University of Virginia also called on their school to divest from “companies engaging in or profiting from the State of Israel’s apartheid regime and acute violence against Palestinians.”

While it remains to be seen how effective such movements will be, Olivier adds, “It’s just encouraging that we are seeing more protests and more people speaking out about this issue.”

“It’s building up to become a revolutionary movement across the world. Something that’s as historical as this will not go unanswered or unseen,” one student activist says.

U.S. federal and state governments have been cutting funding to higher education institutions, leading to more opportunities for arms companies to fill in those gaps, she says. While Olivier doesn’t believe that it’s possible to completely cut schools’ ties to the military and arms groups, those connections could be much smaller, she says. 

But to do that, politicians will need to get involved and “reorient” the national budget. “I don’t see [the funding] decreasing unless the defense budget as a whole goes down,” Olivier says.  

In the immediate future, Olivier calls for giving professors and students more say in the research they perform and having discussions on what universities would invest in instead, if they were to divest from arms groups, such as in solutions to climate change.

Salman, the student organizer at Concordia University, says though the movement to sever links between educational institutions and the military industry has been an uphill battle, this time feels different. 

He points to how in 1985, students at Columbia University — the epicenter of the current wave of student protests against the Gaza war —  managed to push their school to divest from companies linked to apartheid South Africa.

Now, he says, students are united worldwide on an even bigger scale.

“It’s building up to become a revolutionary movement across the world,” says Salman. “Something that’s as historical as this will not go unanswered or unseen.”

Maria Iqbal is a senior editor at Analyst News.