Student fury as Oxford sells advice to arms dealers

Parin Shah - News Reporter 5 November 2009

The ethical issue of university involvement with weapons manufacturers has again come to the forefront after the revelation that Oxford University Consulting, (OUC) a company owned solely by Oxford University, has provided consultancy related services to QinetiQ and BAE Systems.

OUC, the trading name of Isis Innovation Ltd, has raised more than £3,110,000 for the university since mid-2006. Its clients range from Microsoft, to GlaxoSmithKline, to Unilever but it is the reported discovery that the firm has dabbled with military defence providers that has caused anger in some quarters.

Daniel Lowe, Environment and Ethics officer for the Oxford University Student Union spoke to “The Oxford Student” newspaper, of widespread dismay at reports that the university was supporting by association the activities of what he described as “some of the world’s least scrupulous companies”. Lowe stated that: “Oxford’s primary purpose is education. To be supporting BAE Systems and QinetiQ is somewhat hypocritical when our own researchers show that propagation of armed conflict is never an ideal solution.”

A representative of Oxford’s Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) was similarly scathing: “All this learning and research is being carried out, only for researchers to be encouraged by the University to put all their knowledge into developing better, more destructive weapons. The University should be ashamed.”

BAE Systems is a leading global defence company that has been embroiled in scandal over recent years. A 2007 ethics review chaired by Lord Woolf came to the conclusion that based on past incidents “BAE did not pay sufficient attention to ethical standards in the way it conducted business” and made 23 recommendations for changes to the way BAE conducted its business. In September of this year, the SFO announced its intentions to prosecute BAE on the grounds of overseas corruption.

However, it is not just the disclosure that OUC has a continuing relationship with BAE and QinetiQ that has concerned students but also the refusal of OUC to detail any other dealings with military contractors that raise ethical concerns.

In response, OUC stated that “OUC does not release the names of its clients without their permission; this is standard practice for consultancy firms. In some cases it is under a specific contractual obligation not to disclose the name of the client. Disclosure of the information requested would be likely to harm its relations with existing clients and undermine its ability to win new business.”

University involvement with military companies has been on the agenda, with Cambridge colleges dramatically decreasing their investments in weapons manufacturers since student protests in 2006. St. John’s College stands out for having no shares in companies defined as arms companies by the CAAT.

 The Cambridge equivalent of OUC, Cambridge Enterprise, which offers consultancy services from Cambridge academics and generated £8.8 million in consultancy fees, licensing fees and royalties in 2007-2008 was approached by The Cambridge Student regarding its activities with defence companies. Cambridge Enterprise declined to comment.

Parin Shah – News Reporter