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An ethical minefield: Bristol University’s corporate partnerships.

What role should questionable industries play in publicly funded educational institutions?


What role should questionable industries play in publicly funded educational institutions?

Words: Ajit Niranjan
Research: Adam Cantwell-Corn

Bristol, with good right, enjoys its green credentials. It’s an active, ethical city with a huge sense of community — and its successful bid for European Green Capital 2015 has raised it to the global stage. Within the UK, it’s been voted the best city to live in. These achievements are made possible through the efforts of various interest groups: a pleasantly surprising mix of local government, private companies and communities who share a sustainable vision.

There are notables exceptions to the progressive green surge sweeping the city. One of which is it’s biggest educational institution. The University of Bristol, despite boasting a “commitment to sustainability”, has been reluctant to genuinely act — particularly when it comes to its relationships with ethically questionable industries.

In July, the Bristol Cable published its investigation into UoB’s  £56 million investment portfolio, and finding 207 verified ethical violations dating back to 2010 within 189 investments. These ranged from human rights abuses, corruption, consumer fraud, non-payment of tax and environmental negligence and destruction.

The notable exception within the line up of big finance, oil, pharmaceuticals and others was the lack of investments in the arms industry. However, that omission is more than made up for in partnerships with the industry.

Atkins, Babcock, General Electric (who has donated over £12,000 in cash to the engineering department)  and Rolls-Royce are all partners of the Engineering department’s “Engineering Design” course, with involvement in the student selection process and providing year-long employment in the mandatory 3rd year placement. All of these companies are involved, to varying degrees, in the arms trade – the latter three feature in the world’s top 100 military services companies.

Student and activist groups have begun to raise concerns about the level of influence these companies have in university life. Last year students at UoB staged a “die-in” outside BAE Systems’ stall at the careers fair, but failed to pass a motion banning them from campus. More than 90% of BAE’s  sales are military-related and it has a long history of selling arms to corrupt regimes with poor human rights records, sometimes on trips abroad with Prime Minister Cameron, such as the Gulf state tour in 2012.

Yet although BAE’s crimes are well-documented, it is not general knowledge that companies such as Rolls-Royce and General Electric are prolific arms dealers. But perhaps that isn’t a concern?

Speaking to UoB’s student-run newspaper Epigram last year, Director of the Careers Service Stuart Johnson refuted the suggestion that the university should be vetting firms holding stalls at careers events. “Students who are concerned about certain companies exhibiting at careers fairs are entitled to protest peacefully,” he said. “[However], students who are interested in working for such companies are equally entitled to be able to interact with them unhindered.”


BHP Biliton (Fossil Fuels)


BP (Fossill Fuels)


Royal Dutch Shell (Fossil Fuels)


Chevron (Fossil Fuels)


General Electric Company (Arms and Energy)

But such attitudes mask a hidden danger — that talented engineering graduates are falling easy prey to unethical companies, unaware of their negative impacts. Neither the Careers Service nor the engineering department’s Industrial Liaison Office seek to advertise this, and the information they provide to undergraduates resembles little more than PR spin.

Corporate socials, professional accreditation and career progression feature prominently; environmental and ethical concerns are brushed to the side.

Such closeness of publicly funded institutions and controversial industries doesn’t stop with graduate recruitment. Last year the Guardian revealed UoB to be one of 5 British universities holding a “strategic alliance” with the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE). The secretive organisation, responsible for the design and manufacture of nuclear warheads, has poured millions of pounds into research and development at more than 50 universities across the country, including £1.3 Million to Bristol.

The Nuclear Information Service, who uncovered the link through Freedom of Information requests, claim that ethical committees in universities are not doing enough to prevent these links from forming — and that such relationships have wide-reaching implications for funding, recruitment and legitimacy:

“As well as contributing to AWE’s scientific research programmes, academic collaboration also plays an important role in helping to increase the perception of AWE as a reputable scientific institution, provides a pool of graduate recruits for staff posts at AWE, and allows the Establishment to draw on expertise and facilities at universities to support its work.”

The University of Bristol needs to acknowledge these incompatible positions. On the surface, it displays a strong commitment to sustainable and ethical principles, pledging to reduce its environmental impact and cutting its carbon footprint. But behind the scenes it seems to be operating to far lower standards. If it wishes to trade off an ethical and sustainable reputation it has a duty to participate fully in an environmental, social and ethical program. Arms dealers, fossil fuel multinationals and nuclear weapon designers cannot be a part of that.

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