Unless universities get on top of defence policy, defence policy is going to get on top of them

As Labour looks to both talk tough and think strategically on defence, James Coe charts universities’ difficult relationship with international politics

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

The University of Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery and Museum is home to a memorial to the staff and students who lost their lives in the two world wars. The VG&M, as it is affectionately known, also saw its fair share of conflict.

During the Second World War students and staff occupied the VG&M’s tower as volunteer firewatchers. Their role was to report the locations of fire, including on one occasion in 1941 when a parachute mine hit the university’s engineering building.

Further down from the VG&M is the Heroes Memorial which depicts Captain Noel Chavasse, who was awarded the Victoria Cross twice. His sculpture faces across Abercromby Square toward the house where his dad used to live. His dad’s digs are now classrooms for the university’s school of arts.

Adjacent to his statue sits Abercromby Square where a group of people have been protesting the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. They are situated next to a memorial to wars past while their encampment urges action on wars today.


Across the country these encampments have been pressuring their institutions to cut ties with organisations linked to Israel. This includes a boycott of companies involved in the production of lethal weapons.

The wider geopolitical question these actions bring to universities is the extent to which they can claim to be neutral international actors. Largely, universities will work with any partners providing they are legally permitted to do so and the company, country, or partner, will not bring undue risk, financial harm, or reputational damage. This approach is in line with the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development, and Foreign Policy where the government committed to “increase protections for academic freedom and university research,” but noting that “where tensions arise with other objectives, we will always put national security first.”

The problem is that the other objectives through which these tensions can arise are unclear. China is an “epoch-defining challenge,” but also the preeminent global economic force. Universities are part of “global Britain” but also regularly painted as the soft underbelly of the national security state. And, by their nature, universities are both collaborative and autonomous so the government will not tell them who they can or cannot work with but will tell them off if they get it wrong.

Or, as in the case of ARIA which was premised on replicating the model of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the government will occasionally choose to use concerns about defence and international relations to leverage wider policy goals.

Benign non-interventionism

In the face of this strategic ambiguity universities have adopted a policy of benign non-interventionism. This is a policy which affirms that universities do not hold individual students or researchers responsible for the actions of their government and they will work with any partners within the law and their risk appetite. Politically, it is also a way of universities not having to pick sides in conflicts of great complexity which the UK is not directly involved in.

This position holds in a world where geo-politics are predictable – but that is not the world we live in. There are allegations like collaboration with Iranian universities on drone research where universities, regardless of the intent or true nature of the work, have attracted criticism. However, there are a multitude of areas that are much more ambiguous.

This ambiguity is partially because the world is complicated and it is partially because Russia’s full-scale of Ukraine forced universities into the political arena. Owing to a mixture of state-sanction and moral obligations, universities cut ties with Russian universities and almost overnight relegated what was once seen as an emerging force in higher education to the very fringes of the international order in research.

This swift action leaves universities open to continual questions on who they will or will not work with. Not only on whether the invasion of another sovereign nation is the absolute red-line for collaboration but the moral relativity of such an action. If universities won’t work because of this reason, what is the justification to work with a country that does these bad things, or these bad things, and so on. Part of benign non-interventionism is a belief that collaboration with nations with values unlike the UK brings them closer to its moral orbit. Recent history would suggest that this isn’t the case.

The way forward

The path ahead for universities is fraught. At a time where universities are keen to be forces for good around the globe in sustainability, development, or economic progress, moral ambiguity at home risks damaging their impact abroad. Taking more explicitly moral or political positions risks alienating partners, funders, staff, students, and collaborators who have no responsibility for the actions of their government but will be part of collaborating to solve the world’s most pressing challenges.

Labour has promised a full review of defence spending after its likely election win, with an eye to ramping up to the famous 2.5 per cent of GDP target, while the Conservatives’ own roadmap for hitting this goal involved a huge investment in defence R&D. Last week saw reports in the press of a draft Labour policy that would cultivate a network of defence-focused universities, allowing the government to play a coordinating role in directing academic research and building links between academia and the armed forces.

Whatever pans out post-election, now is the time for universities to consider their global position. Practically, and challengingly, this probably involves developing not only a practical framework but a moral one too on who they will and will not work with.

On the other hand, the world is not made safer through isolationist policies. The research security agenda is not going anywhere and, as yet, the idea that the country is made safer through collaborating, sharing ideas and growing the UK’s own research capability has not had a proper hearing. The idea that global understanding makes for a safer world needs repeating often.

And finally, perhaps most damaging to universities is the idea that their research endeavours are somehow not transparent, or done in an underhand way. Universities receive a high level of press, scrutiny, and interest. A new government should be reassured that the sector is a reliable partner.

Setting clear rules of engagement, championing engagement as part of security, and committing to maximum transparency will help universities achieve a more stable footing in the great global security debates. What they choose to do from this position is a matter of university leadership.

3 responses to “Unless universities get on top of defence policy, defence policy is going to get on top of them

  1. Call me old fashioned, but I tend to think university research should focus on making the world a nicer place to live rather than on finding bigger and quicker ways for governments to kill their enemies. Beat swords into ploughshares and all that.

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