Dangerous ‘outside agitators’ have infiltrated Western universities

May 21, 2024
Sydney, Australia. 3rd May 2024. Pro-Jewish/Israeli ?March for a Safe Campus? vs Palestine tent city protesters at the University of Sydney, Camperdown.

Students have established solidarity encampments at 11 universities in Australia since April 23rd when the first camp was established at the University of Sydney. Many of these students have for the last 7 months been watching a continuous stream of war crimes and their aftermaths on Tiktok and Instagram, uploaded by Gazans enduring horrific conditions.

The camps follow the international student movement in asking universities to disclose their ties with Israeli companies complicit in the violence and to divest from these companies, including from institutional collaborations with Israeli universities. This is a demand with widespread support among academic workers and the broader university community.

In making this demand, the students have exposed the extent to which Australian universities are involved in research contributing to the slaughter they see unfolding on their phones. The debate has moved forward significantly from the opacity of Australia’s defence export control system and the deficiencies of how on-selling of components produced in Australia is monitored.

Beyond the bureaucratic proprieties of ‘human research ethics committees’ and the endlessly repeated mantras of equity, diversity, respect and inclusion, Australian universities are deeply involved in military research and development. Western Sydney University, University of Wollongong, University of Technology Sydney and the University of Sydney all have ongoing collaborations with Thales, the French multinational arms manufacturer famous for supplying components to Russia despite sanctions, thereby maximising shareholder value by arming both sides. Thales supplies materiel to the IDF as well as collaborating with Elbit, one of the largest Israeli arms companies. The University of Sydney and ANU in Canberra both have partnerships with Northrop Grumman. BAE Systems, Boeing, Honeywell, Leonardo, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon all have relationships with universities here. These are the dangerous ‘outside agitators’ who have been invited onto university campuses, with business models predicated on endless state violence.

Liberal and Labor governments have exhibited little interest in supporting universities or their international or domestic students. This antipathy became notable during and since the pandemic. University managers have nonetheless been eager to align research to defence priorities. All Australian universities have signed up to the Department of Defence Science Partnerships program. In the broader context of climate breakdown and ensuing mass migration, this is a bleak harbinger. Australia is the 16th largest global arms exporter according to the most recent SIPRI data, and there is a bipartisan commitment to getting into the top 10.

This ambition entails extending collaborations between Australian and Israeli defence industries. The ADF and the IDF, for example, both use Spike missiles. Last year the government allocated AUD$50 million for local production of these missiles, in partnership with the local subsidiary of the Israeli arms manufacturer Rafael, Varley Rafael Australia. The ADF has a AUD$917 million contract with Elbit to provide turrets for Redback Infantry Fighting Vehicles. The Israeli automated weapon systems company Smartshooter has established an Australian subsidiary, Smash, to provide systems to the ADF including remote automated weapons for land and sea (‘killer robots’ in ordinary language).

Without opposition such as that mounted by the student encampments, Australian universities will certainly slide further into moral squalor and exposure to criminal liability. Declassified documents demonstrate that the Australian government is knowingly failing to meet obligations under international law. Overt political inaction is combined with active pursuit of revenue and a hostile international posture through military research and development deals.

Unlike the few universities demonstrating the moral leadership their students demanded (notably Trinity College Dublin, the University of Barcelona, Evergreen State College in Washington state), the response from Australian university ‘leadership’ has been characteristically vapid. Managers have thus far failed completely to engage with what their paying students have asked of them, preferring to hide behind platitudes about free speech and the associated threats about having zero tolerance for vilification, hate speech and so on. No Australian university has produced a written or even verbal statement about plans to disclose or divest, or not. Students at the University of Melbourne were reportedly told that ‘Australia’s national defence interests are the interests of the university’. Their Deputy Vice-Chancellor incoherently suggested that disclosure would be contrary to academic freedom. He told The Age that if the university agreed to pull out of arms research, they would be asked to pull out of fossil fuel collaborations next – heaven forbid.

Academics consider it rude and unprofessional not to answer a question put by a young person, especially a young person legitimately horrified by events they can see happening. The nonresponse from management is a sorry indicator of the antidemocratic culture of impunity permeating university governance. Insofar as tertiary education remains committed to engaging in open dialogue, to sharing knowledge, to behaving as though dialogue would make the world more liveable, this very public failure of institutional leadership puts the entire endeavour of the university in an untenable position.

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