Bloody students! With their fancy mobile phones and penchant for going out on the piss every night… Or are they future ‘leaders of tomorrow’ with a thirst for knowledge and desire to study and question?
In theory, ‘education’ encourages free thinking and nurtures analytical minds. But at what cost? With student fees introduced in 1998, top-up fees heading our way in 2006 and sources of public funding cut off, higher education is becoming an expensive endeavour.
Without a steady supply of cash, institutions are being closed down or sold off. Citing ‘market forces’ as being a major factor in deciding whether a course stays or goes, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are seeking other sources of funding, not only in order to survive but also to ensure competition with other institutions. Moreover, students need to secure more money for studying. This all means big opportunities for corporate investment.
For the high-achieving, cash-strapped students, universities have ‘Access to Learning’ funds, though this is usually not enough money to live on. Engineering and other physical sciences students are eligible for Chevening Scholarships, sponsored by companies such as BP, Bechtel, Cadbury Schweppes, GKN, Diageo and global arms company BAE Systems. Twenty four universities ‘benefit’ from such central joint funded schemes. Other scholarships up for grabs include cash for geology, chemical and mechanical engineering courses at Manchester and Leeds, offered by Shell. Astra-Zeneca have bursaries for chemistry, and Proctor & Gamble for engineering.
Corporate involvement does not stop at scholarships. For many corporations, university is a cheap way of undertaking research and development (R&D). Examples of corporate activity in the curriculum include shopping colosuss ASDA and the University of Surrey running degrees for potential store managers, and defence company QinetiQ ‘supporting’ seven UK universities in areas of physics, electrical and mechanical engineering, IT and management.
Some university departments are even named after the corporates who sponsor them, such as the BP Institute at Cambridge University. In 2002, 18 universities took on the initiative of developing defence technology centres (DTCs). Corporations involved in this include BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and GKN. The DTCs encourage military research and promote a career in the ‘defence’ industries.
Another recruiting ground can be found at university careers fairs or through corporate backed student careers organisation AISEC.
However, students can see past companies’ PR. Last year, six students from Lancaster University took action against a ‘Corporate Venturing Conference’ which featured delegates from companies such as BAE Systems and Shell. Lancaster University made an example out of the students, and took them to court for aggravated trespass of the George Fox conference building; named, ironically enough, after the Seventeenth-Century rebel and founder of the Quakers. The ‘George Fox 6’ received a two year conditional discharge and no fine. This verdict has worrying implications for future student activism.
But through campaigning on and off campus, UK students continue to express dissent. Actions against corporate involvement have included: disrupting careers fairs, withholding tuition fees, holding banner drops to support departments or halls facing cuts and action against companies such as ESSO. One example of students having a huge impact on corporations is the Lloyds and Midlands Bank (LAMB) boycott campaign from the mid-nineties. In 1994, LAMB estimated that campaigning activity during Freshers’ week at Manchester resulted in the two banks losing approximately 8,000 new accounts.
Currently, Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) are running their new ‘University Clean Investment’ campaign. They are targetting the 67 HEIs who are involved in supporting the arms trade through investments.
Solidarity and support for student activists is needed now more than ever. There is still a chance to save HEIs from total corporate takeover.
 ibid. Universities benefitting: Oxford, Manchester, Cambridge, Westminster, Dundee, Leeds, Strathclyde, Sheffield, University College London, Cranfield, City University, Sussex, Glasgow, Warwick, Goldsmiths College, Staffordshire, London School of Economics, Edinburgh, Essex, St Andrews, Stirling, Durham, Imperial College of Science & Technology – University College London and Surrey