University of York divests from weapon manufacturers

24/05/2024

Heather Gosling reports on University of York’s recent decision to divest from arms manufacturers

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Image by Flickr: John Robinson

By Heather Gosling

The University of York has confirmed that it has stopped investments in arms companies following pressure from student organisers. A freedom of information request by the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign discovered that the University of York had invested a total of £33,251 in two companies, Cisco Systems and Smiths Group. Cisco Systems is a US-based networking hardware company that has established contracts with the Israeli government. Smiths Group is a British technology arms company that provided Israel with checkpoint lanes and it has also supplied several components to the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II programme, used in Israel’s May 2021 aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip.
The news of the University’s divestment was announced on the 11 of April through a public statement on the University's website about its new responsible investment commitments.
The statement read: “In 2024 the University confirmed it holds no investment in companies that primarily make or sell weapons and defence-related products or services.”
Vice-Chancellor Charlie Jeffrey also commented: “I'm very proud York has evolved our investment strategy in this way, in line with our values as a University for public good. “Our students in particular have raised their concerns about responsible investment and corporate links to armaments and defence, and they have rightly and passionately challenged us to rethink our approach.”
The Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and the University of York Palestinian Society (PalSoc) released a joint Instagram post stating that the news was “a major win for the Palestine solidarity movement at UK universities, showcasing the power of collective mobilisation and direct action.”  However, this claim has been strongly disputed by Pierrick Roger, he stated that: I would also like to address certain student groups who have not productively worked with me in the slightest but have decided to co-opt this win as their own: I put this case forward and I have been the person on the frontline demanding these changes day in and day out. I will not allow others who vehemently criticise my work to suddenly decide that they deserve to be credited for it. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of University funding have been divested for good, but not because you have thrown your toys out of the pram at every given opportunity. This win belongs to those who spent long hours creating impactful research, making the student case for divestment at the Executive level, and pushing for reasoned change through campaigning. You haven't forced anyone to divest, I have.”
The direct action that students have taken on campus includes the disruption of career fairs, walkouts and an open letter calling for immediate divestment which gained over 600 signatures from students, staff and alumni.
 University of York Palestinian society told Nouse: “This announcement from the University of York comes after 40,000 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli occupation forces. This is a positive step in the right direction, but there is still so much the University must do.
“We demand the University commits to full divestment, including ‘professional ties’ with weapons manufacturers. Departments have extensive ties with BAE systems. We demand the University commits to full divestment, including ‘professional ties’ with weapons manufactures that recruit students to build missiles. We will continue to keep our university to account and do what we can to commit to full divestment.”. BAE systems is a weapons manufacturer company, and as an article by Reuters mentioned, BAE is a part of the supply chain for F-35 fighter jets that are used by Israel in combat in occupied areas. BAE told Reuters that “it does not directly export any equipment to Israel'',  however the group is a tier-one supplier on the United States-made F-35 fighter jets which are flown by Israel. A spokesperson from BAE told Nouse: “The ongoing violence in the Middle East is having a devastating impact on civilians in the region and we hope the parties involved find a way to end the violence as soon as possible. We respect everyone’s right to protest peacefully. We operate under the tightest regulation and comply fully with all applicable defence export controls, which are subject to ongoing assessment.” The spokesperson from BAE also stated that “As a background clarification - we have no operations or employees in Israel or Gaza, nor do we sell military equipment directly to Israel.” BAE systems was also present at a careers fair with MBDA Missile systems hosted by the university in October at the Exhibition Centre, and students from University of York’s Palestinian Society, Extinction Rebellion Hub, and Amnesty International protested against their presence on campus.
Nouse also approached Stella Swain, Youth and Student Officer for Palestine Solidarity Campaign for a comment about the news, and her views on what more students can do across the country to put pressure on universities to divest. On the news of University of York’s divestment, Stella stated that “It is really exciting to see that York is no longer investing in companies that produce weapons. It is a testament to the power of student organising, without which the university would not have been pushed to do this sort of action. It is a sign that students can push this kind of change, and I think this will be inspiring to students across the country. Especially when we are seeing encampments pop up with this as one of their demands.” When asked why divestment is so important as a form of activism, Stella commented that: “It is really important because the way that companies are profiting off Israel’s genocidal attacks on Palestinian citizens living in Gaza should be a cause for concern for any moral individual. At the moment, over 34,000 Palestians have been killed just since October 2023. There are no universities left in Gaza, they have all been destroyed by Israeli attacks. In that context, students are realising that their universities are complicit by providing investment and money in those companies complicit in Israel’s attacks.” Stella also stated that campaigning for divestment was “a material way that students can show their solidarity with Palestine. It is also answering a call from Palestinians because in 2005 Palestinian Society put out a call to the international community to boycott Israel through divestment and sanctions. By taking part in divestment action, students are taking part in this call from Palestine.”
Divestment has also been advocated for by Pierrick Roger, who was YUSU President from 2021 to 2024 through his report, Money Doesn’t Grow On Trees, which outlined the investments that the University of York received. The report details that as of 2021-2022, the University received £1.2 million in funds over a period of 5 years from the global top 30 arms manufacturers. The majority of funds were split between Thales and Rolls-Royce Holdings,  BAE systems also featured in the top five companies that the university had invested in.  Nouse reached out to Pierrick for a comment: "I am very pleased that the University has accepted my proposed amendments to its responsible investment policy. Divestment from weapons companies, fossil fuel banks, and violators of international law is long overdue. I have been calling for this for the past 3 years through petitioning, direct action and advocacy at senior level and I am very happy the University has chosen to implement the recommendations set out in my Money Doesn't Grow on Trees Report, the first of its kind in the UK. Through this, we show institutions nationally what social responsibility actually looks like - I am already in touch with other Students' Unions looking to make the change at their own universities.”
 University of York’s divestment from weapon manufacturers has been celebrated by all student organisers involved in the campaign. This news shows that action by students, whether through protest or investigation, is vital in causing change. The University of York is the first university in the UK to divest from arms dealers, making this a historic moment that student organisers hope will lead to other universities following suit.