Student protests force national divestment drive

A student-lead drive for ethical investment has forced numerous UK universities to divest their funding in recent years.

Mobilized by reports into university funding released by the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), students across the UK have engaged in protests and pressure groups over the last five years, in an attempt to force universities to sell their shares in companies engaged in the arms trade.

The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, was one of the first institutions to buckle under pressure from its students. Selling the 62,000 shares it owned in arms companies such as Smiths Group, Cobham and GKN in 2005, the college of the University of London, drafted a new ethical investment policy and called on others to do the same: “This murderous trade has ravaged countries across Asia and Africa, with British companies touting some £4 billion worth of legal weaponry around the globe. Universities have no business supporting these killers,” a SOAS press release reported.

In 2006 several universities followed suit. Students at York voted in an overwhelming majority to mandate the Students Union to campaign against the University’s investments, after the CAAT revealed it to be holding 115,000 direct shares in BAE systems. A similar Student Union motion was passed at Bristol, Bangnor and Manchester universities, and at Sheffield in 2007.

Students at Goldsmiths College in London took radical action in the same year, setting up an angry protest to coincide with a college open day. The college backed down almost immediately, and committed to selling its contentious shares soon after.

In 2007, University College London (UCL) publicized its ‘Disarm UCL’ campaign, aiming to pressure the college into selling its shares in arms company Cobham. Gaining support from students, academic staff and alumni, the campaign set up an online petition and compiled a new ethical investment policy for their college. The campaign continues to organise and host anti-arms trade meetings and protests.

A four year campaign by students at St. Andrews University reached its conclusion in 2007, with the Scottish institution adopting an ethical investment policy drawn up in joint effort between student activists and the university Finance Director. The campaign, set up in 2003, found immediate support amongst the student community at St.Andrews. Within one year, progress had been made in improving transparency in the university’s investment procedures, and by 2005 a working group had been set up with the Finance Director.

The CAAT continues to work with universities: in March of this year, the pressure group organised a National Day of Action in conjunction with the People and Planet group. Across the country, students took up different forms of protest: those at UCL donned suits and plastic guns to pose as arms dealers, at Nottingham students took part in a mass die-in protest, and Lancanster University held an open air debate on ethical investment.