Plastic Bag Radio: Interview with Holly Rea

Posted: November 26, 2013 in Anti-Arms, Students, UK, UWE

Plastic Bag Radio is a show on the University of the West of England’s very own Hub Radio. The show, hosted post-graduate students Sam grist and Matthew Hollinshead alongside former UWE student Samir Seddougui, airs every Tuesday 3pm-4pm. The show mixes philosophical, political and historical discussion with a great selection of music. In light of the fact that UWE were playing host to the DPRTE arms fair this week’s show takes a look at the insidious relationship between universities and the defence industry. During the second half of the show our hosts welcomed on Holly Rea from the Campaign Against Arms Trade to find out more.

Plastic Bag: First of all, I know Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) have done research on the money that arms companies give to universities, could you tell us a bit about the relationships between these companies and universities?

Holly Rae: It works in two ways; on the one hand you have universities investing financially into arms companies because it is seen as being a very profitable industry even though when you look at the facts and figures it really isn’t. For instance we just found out through a freedom of information request that Trinity College at Cambridge University have £250,000 worth of shares in Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest arms company. Then the way that arms companies will feed back into universities is that they will fund scholarships with the insinuation that these students will go on to work for an arms company for a certain number of years or that the arms companies will be able to heavily influence the academic programs. So you will often find that students going into engineering jobs, though now BAE are recruiting students all academic disciplines studying humanities as well as sciences, for example in Manchester there are students doing research on laser cleaning which doesn’t seem that insidious on the surface, however the feedback from this was used by the arms trade. So you have a situation where students are doing research for arms companies and the military for free.

PB: About a year ago someone wrote a piece on drones and ethics which argued that they are more ethical because they kill less people. As if, when you take the total number of people that can be involved in a combat situation, any way of reducing that number is seen as an ethical benefit. It just so happens that this was keeping American soldiers out and that was the key. The author of this piece, as it happens, was a philosopher funded by the American Navy. Which seems hilarious, well I mean some of us here study philosophy and the idea of being funded by the MoD just seems bizarre. So, you were talking about how arms companies have a huge amount of influence and how they can recruit people because they have funded them to go through university and then universities are investing in that. Is it simply syllabus control that they have? I know that HP provide a lot of the software used by Israeli Defence Force as well as other western militaries and they own sections of the [Frenchay] campus we are on right now. I was wondering though if there are other universities in the UK where arms companies have more direct control or just UWE.

HR: No it is everywhere. For instance Cardiff University has its own naval ship, which goes out to conflict, in the dock.

PB: The University has its own ship? That is so terrible.

HR: Yeah. In Portsmouth the university has just won a bid to be able to oversee the course at the first military technical college in Oman. So you have a very military and arms trade orientated focus at many universities. In fact 50% of scientists go into the arms industry after graduating and this is because of the influence had by arms companies. I know a lot of people will say “Oh yeah, but they are giving out scholarships”, but the money for these scholarships comes from the government, it’s not businesses putting up their own money. It’s being diverted through the government and it is the government then influencing what jobs they want people to go into, through what I see as very illegitimate means.

PB: It seems entirely that that undue corporate control, which is a massive understatement for the level of control that the arms industry has got, but it does tie into that idea of removing steadily any kind of democratic control of any public institutions like universities. So I think it is very import to connect this kind of stuff to attacks on fees etc. In fact today there is a national day of action against fees and various other issues, but we of course have this demonstration today and tomorrow against the arms trade on our campus. We still know very little about what will go on in that building besides a lot of very dangerous men in really expensive suits talking about finding fun ways to kill people. It’s definitely going to be a big event, we saw on the website it’s described as one of the main defence procurement events of the year in the UK.

HR: Definitely. In September we had Defence, Security and Equipment International (DSEi), which is one of the world’s largest arms fairs, in London and I imagine that a lot of companies that met there will be following up at this event. I was just doing some research and apparently the group who are setting up the event have said that they won’t have any form of munitions, weaponry, artillery or hazardous military equipment on site as though that somehow excuses the fact that that is what they are going to be talking about, those are the deals they are going to be making. Just because you don’t physically have the guns there, they do at DSEi and you’ll see civil servants playing with guns and grenades and things. It’s quite bizarre.

PB: Yeah, when we were trying to find propaganda and photos we found this picture of this incredibly geeky looking guy in a suit that didn’t quite fit right, but being so excited by this sniper rifle. It was so terrifyingly Freudian. So we are not talking about there being loads of guns on campus, this is much more of a networking and brochures type event. Do you feel that there is an explicit push by arms companies to keep the guns away in an effort to make it seem more of a business event?

HR: Definitely. You would never hear an arms dealer talking about the ethics of what they do, when you are talking about how many people they kill it’s in terms of efficiency, it’s in terms of how easily you can suppress a crowd or a riot and how you can do that cheaply. It is very far removed from the actual horrors of conflict and I think that’s why CAAT and other international solidarity groups work really hard to take the photos and do the research to ensure that the human aspect of conflict isn’t forgotten cause I think that it is all very easy to get swept up in this boys and their toys mentality.

PB: Just the rhetoric of arms companies takes the human aspect away from what’s actually happening. You were talking about suppressing riots; the UK particularly has connections with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia known to be extremely bad on those sorts of issues.

HR: It’s ridiculous. We currently have David Cameron in Sri Lanka talking about human rights and yet he is in the middle of a tour of Saudi Arabia and the UAE trying to sell them fighter jets. So he only cares about human rights when in suites the pocket of arms dealers.

PB: Yeah, exactly. Ok, so there will possibly be some disruption happening on campus today and tomorrow, what kind of security would you imagine demonstrators to be encountering? Is it fair to say that these companies have been ramping up their security?

HR: It is difficult to say, we have found that the policing at first at DSEi was very light-handed, it was only after we had been there a few hours that you started to see more police to the point where there was probably a police officer for every person at the occupation outside DSEi. I can’t imagine it will be like that on a university campus. They may bring in private security to boost up the campus security, but one of the things that universities do when putting on these kinds of conferences is putting a lot of pride on their own security. That’s part of business and in some ways that is why universities have been clamping down on student protest because it is bad for their business. If they are not in the public eye seen as being able to control students, who of course in the public eye are seen as being a bit frivolous and silly then that may negatively persuade them. So you may see quite bad uses of security, but I don’t think it would be anything to worry about as such. I don’t know if you saw all the videos of the security guards in Sheffield?

PB: Yeah, that was at an engineering employment fair it was pretty intense. So that was a ‘dying’ action, people went in, pretended to die and be as obtrusive as possible and eventually private security came in and manhandled them out, which is obviously not what they want to do because it is not very good press. But as you said if they can keep students in line then it kind of helps their image if they are going to be having this kind of employment fair, selling off their students etc. But this also means that the stakes for student resistance over these kinds of issues is a lot higher. If we can actually say well we can’t do it, we could lose them a hell of a lot of money and that is basically how you shift management. I didn’t realise how useful direct action on campus could be.

HR: I’ve got two small anecdotes on that point. The first; on Thursday I was in Portsmouth because BAE Systems were putting on one of their lavish nights of recruitment where basically they will get a bit of prosecco in and sit down with a glossy magazine telling people how they are defending the world etc. And it turned out that the event got cancelled and one of the people who were part of the group I was with was volunteering with the company that was putting on the event and he said that he had received an email informing him that one of the key speakers had pulled out after hearing that there was a student protest planned. So that is an example of how even the threat of something can have an effect. There was another student group, I forget which one, a couple of years ago who were trying to get a meeting with their Vice Chancellor, but every time they called him up the secretary just palmed them off, so in the end they wrote him a letter saying if you do not meet with us then we will sabotage this corporate event that is going on. And so they had a meeting within two days. I think that it is important not to underestimate the power of student protest.

PB: And I think you can almost see that a little bit. I was looking at the western eye, which is the UWE student newspaper, and the editor had written an article on the arms fair and it’s got a quote from a university spokesman who was saying that the university would not expect protest at this type of event and any protest there is he hopes would be responsible. So I think that that shows that they are a bit worried that something could disrupt their event, which obviously a lot of people have put a lot of money into when you look at the £6,000 costs for a table. What is interesting about this event specifically, and we have been talking about the more explicit links between the arms trade and universities, this is literally them renting out the building, a building that perhaps wasn’t bought in the best interest of the students, but that’s another question. So the university is holding this line of we are renting out the building, we condone the arms trade and so they can remain neutral and at the same time completely complicit. It’s just business.

HR: I’ll believe that they are neutral when they put on an event for renewable technology or sustainable energy.

PB: The thing is, they have had that kind of stuff. UWE is very involved in trying to present itself as an ethical institution which means that the fact that it has got major arms research labs, exists on land previously owned and a lot of it still owned by major military industrial contactors and its whole edifice is built up on being “better together” and talking about inclusivity and equality, but this is built up on the whole military industrial complex.

HR: Definitely, and that’s how the arms companies manage to put forward this legitimate face.  I think especially it is quite sad to hear that UWE, even though it’s got this really ethical facade on it that it is based on this fundamentally awful industry. It could be a forerunner, there are universities that do have ethical standards for who they allow to rent out their buildings and things like that and they could really push that and though I hate to use business language that could be a unique selling point for them and a really positive way to go forward, but instead they choose to legitimise the arms trade by maintaining this facade of being an ethical place, but yet still inviting these people onto their campus.

PB: UWE was one of the first universities to go for the £9,000 fees, in fact our Vice Chancellor was one of the guys who drew up the Universities UK policy on increasing fees, they have a massive problem with not paying the Bristol Living Wage, and the unions on campus are fighting for a decent wage. So specifically for students weighing up whether or not to come down to the demonstration in ten minutes the fact that the same universities business policy allows it to not pay cleaners properly and allow murderers onto campus are not disconnected issues. The fact that we are having to pay more fees and having fewer lectures is not a disconnected issue, its part of a wider marketisation of the university that needs to be challenged at every step. And this is one that we can be really powerful in. UWE cares so much about its press, it rates one positive tweet about UWE £5, I saw a spreadsheet of media reports, but an inch of positive press is worth £1000 to them. So they have this stuff quantified and the bigger noise we can make about this in the media and also if we can embarrass them in front of their defence contractor friends then that really shifts the balance in favour of students and workers on campus and that is something that we shouldn’t under estimate. OK we only have a couple of minutes left, can you tell people if they want to get involved with Campaign Against Arms Trade how they go about that.

HR: OK, so obviously go and support the demonstration and protest tomorrow, that would sound like the first thing to do. You can find us on Facebook as well as the CAAT website, but then we have the sub-Facebook which is just for universities so that is a really good place to connect with other students. On our website there are loads of resources for if you want to start your own campaign. It sounds like UWE would really respond well to an ethical investments campaign. So I think that would be something to maybe start looking into and maybe get some freedom of information requests out to see how deep these relationships lie and just generally get in touch with us at CAAT, you can give me an email at and I will get back to you. But just have a few meetings, get people together, they don’t have to be stuffy and boring, you can do them in a fun way and just get some campaign momentum on campus and use your own power to influence your university.

PB: Awesome, thank you so much.


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