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Dangerous liasons: Warwick’s ties to the arms industry

The University of Warwick has had strong connections with defence manufacturers since the 1980s, an investigation by The Boar has found.

Concrete ties between the University and the industry began with the creation of the Integrated Graduate Development Scheme (IGDS) by WMG – formerly named Warwick Manufacturing Group. The scheme began in 1980, and its first intake of engineers in 1981 included those from Lucas Industries and was later followed by companies such as BAE Systems’ predecessors, British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce.  

All three of these companies were major manufacturers in the British aerospace sector and played a significant role in the production of military aircraft. They were not alone, however other companies participating in the IGDS scheme included Westland Helicopters, Fokker, Vickers Shipbuilders, Royal Ordnance, Thorn EMI, Plessey Aerospace and GKN. 

The scheme was created by Kumar Bhattacharyya, the founder of WMG, and was designed to offer postgraduate management education which was run jointly by a consortium of companies and the University. Bhattacharyya wrote that the program was “as much about management development as about technology”.  

The IGDS was funded by the private sector after an initial public research investment was phased out. This led to incredibly close ties between Warwick and the companies that financed WMG. The Economist reported in 1993 that WMG received 90% of its £10 million turnover from industry partners. This dwarfed the then-perceived role model for British universities, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institutes, which received 45% of its funding from industry.  

As such, WMG created a new standard for British universities that the government of the time encouraged them to meet, strengthening ties with the industrial sector and receiving increased private-sector funding. The Times reported that WMG was a “favourite of Margaret Thatcher” during her time as Prime Minister.  

Following the initial establishment of the IGDS, the ties between these companies and Warwick weathered a storm of company mergers and buyouts in the 1990s. British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce emerged as two key defence industry partners for the University.  

This resulted in a “tailor-made course” in which students coming “from companies that manufacture guided weapons, guns and ammunition, electronic systems, and military aircraft” wrote a supply management magazine in 1998. The course aimed to streamline production and logistical systems at British Aerospace.  

Rolls-Royce also set up a unit at the University to develop advanced ceramics technology and stated that they already had extensive research and training programs with Warwick’s Engineering Department. This led Sir Francis Tombs, then Chairman of Rolls-Royce, to tell the BBC in 1988 that through WMG the company gained “better engineers and more competitive products done in a way that [is] cheaper and more reliable.” 

Other defence conglomerates also had a significant presence at Warwick, such as the General Electric Company, which signed a ‘knowledge partnership’ with the University worth between £5£10 million every year.  

These relations have continued into the 21st century, especially with BAE Systems, the successor to numerous defence and aerospace companies that originally worked with Warwick.  

The University has partnered with BAE for numerous research projects, including in 2006 when Warwick was listed as a manufacturing section of a research program designing low-cost flapless unmanned aerial combat vehicles.  

WMG also received a BAE Chairman’s Bronze award for their storage and distribution training course. The course included guest speakers from BAE and the Ministry of Defence, and further input was given by members of BAE Systems’ Import/Export teams and Explosives Division.  

The University has received just under £2 million in funds from the Atomic Weapons Establishment

This relationship culminated in the University of Warwick and BAE Systems signing a Memorandum of Understanding in 2011 to “create an environment and culture for co-operative research and education on areas of common interest and mutual benefit”. 

The University also confirmed to OpenDemocracy that at least one defence company official sits on an advisory board that has input in all undergraduate and postgraduate engineering degrees but refused to name the individual or the company. 

Warwick has also engaged in significant research collaborations with the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), a UK government organisation devoted to the research and manufacture of nuclear weapons. 

The University has received just under £2 million in funds from AWE and worked on 31 research projects with the company since 2010. Alongside this, the organisation currently sponsors five PhD students studying at Warwick, and the University’s Centre for Fusion, Space and Astrophysics has been described as having “strong links” with AWE.  

When asked about ethical guidelines on research projects involving such companies, an academic from the University of Warwick’s Engineering Department told The Boar: “To my knowledge Ethical approval is focused mainly on human participants.  

“If the research involves humans or data on humans, that will need ethical approval. The effect of the research on humanity does not require ethical approval, unless for example the research threatens the reputation of the University, then it may also need consent from one of the University’s Research Ethics Committees.”  

They also noted: “Without external funding, not much research is possible, particularly in the engineering department. That funding can come from public research councils but also from private companies.” 

Warwick’s Socially Responsible Investment Policy 2023 states that amongst other goals: “The University is mindful of the need to reduce and, ideally, eliminate corporate behaviour leading to armament sales to military regimes.” 

The academic responded to the University’s statement by saying: “I’m not convinced the University has the same policy when it goes to who it takes funding from.”  

The relationships between the University of Warwick and defence manufacturers have proven to be deeply unpopular with many students on campus.  

Protests on and off campus have been carried out for over a decade by student activists. In 2010, Warwick students joined over 400 protestors in blockading an AWE facility. In 2012 students held a ‘die-in’ at a careers fair at the University in which they lay motionless on the ground in protest. The fair was attended by BAE and Rolls-Royce, who were specifically targeted to make it clear that the presence of such companies was “not welcome with many students”. 

There is a legitimate debate to be had on the implications of working with companies that make defensive but also offensive weapons

Academic from the Department of Engineering

More recently, the conflict in Gaza has provoked a series of pro-Palestine rallies on campus where students have called on University leaders to cut ties with defence companies. The supply of arms and aircraft by BAE to Israel was a clear point of contention, with the students reiterating that the company does not belong on campus.  

When asked about these protests, the academic stated that there was “a legitimate debate to be had on the implications of working with companies that make defensive but also offensive weapons”, and that it “was a question for the university and its community on what kind of research they want to undertake”. 

Students studying engineering degrees have mixed feelings on the subject. One member of the Warwick Engineering Society’s Executive Committee told The Boar: “I know a lot of students who are quite passionate about it. They post online, donate, and attend rallies.  

“But also, a lot of people either don’t know about the partnerships [between Warwick and the defence industry] or don’t think about it too much.” 

When asked if they would take part in events involving BAE or Rolls-Royce, they commented: “I personally wouldn’t, and I know a lot of people who wouldn’t. However, if everyone in the society was saying let’s do it, we would consider it.” 


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