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Students rally against Gaza atrocities – and the weapons industry which funds their universities

by Michael Sainsbury | May 1, 2024 | Comment & Analysis, Latest Posts

Australian universities are increasingly funded by weapons manufacturers, partly driven by the AUKUS folly. They are the same companies that support Israel’s genocide in Gaza. Michael Sainsbury reports.

Israel lobby group the Australian Jewish Association has claimed that the University of Sydney is hosting ‘Hitler Youth rallies’ and calls for donors to cut funding. On the latter, the students agree.

The creation of the Gaza Solidarity Encampments at the University of Sydney on April 23 and the University of Melbourne University on April 25 are prima facie to protest the genocide underway in Palestine by Israel. The protests were borne in support of dozens of similar protests on US campuses that are fast spreading globally. Organisers on both campuses say they will continue until their demands are met.

But the protests are also about cutting links between the world’s biggest arms manufacturers, as well as local defence companies, with all of Australia’s 32 public universities. And a Federal government and bureaucracy that is increasingly enabling those links.

Arms dealers and their suppliers are being aided and abetted by Australian taxpayers through myriad forms of government assistance. In 2018, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull laid out the goal of Australia becoming one of the world’s top ten arms makers. To this end, the US$3B (approximately $4.2 billion) Defence Export Facility, administered by Export Finance Australia, was set up to support Australian defence exports.

Inside the Department of Defence, technology projects are driven by the Science and Technology division and its Science Partnerships Program (DSP). A recent media release stated that “DSTG has a long history of working with universities to support student projects that benefit our work programs. Every public university in Australia has signed on to the DSP, making it the largest program of its kind in Australia.”

However, that’s not necessarily supported by students. Sydney University’s Student Representative Council President Harrison Brennan told MWM, “Our two core demands are that we cut ties with Thales, the French weapons company (where outgoing Chancellor Belinda Hutchinson sits on the board).”

And that we cut ties with all Israeli companies, including Elbit and groups, including Israeli universities.

Hutchinson was the Australian chairman of Thales from 2015 to 2023 – and remains on the board. Thales has a research partnership with Sydney Uni and is also part of a joint venture with Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s largest defence companies. The company is blacklisted in countries like Norway and Denmark for violations of humanitarian law. But despite being subject to divestment by global banks and pension funds over ethical concerns, Australia’s Future Fund remains a financier.

Future Fund invested in Israeli company Elbit Systems – whose bombs are raining on the Palestinians

Brennan argues that these partnerships can lead to conflicts of interest, misuse of research, and ethical violations, and he called for greater transparency and accountability in university partnerships. Hala Khartabil, Palestinian student and organising member of Unimelb 4 Palestine, added that, “This is related not only to weapons that are going directly to Israel, which is helping the genocide. It’s also related to the increased militarisation of campuses and to the Australian Defence Force, which has been funding these universities to research its technologies so that it can increase its own defence capabilities.”

And that’s problematic because it’s going directly towards funding genocides around the world.

Arms manufacturers funding

The arms manufacturers are collectively tipping hundreds of millions of dollars into Australian universities’ research, funding internships and joint ventures. The list is long, including the above-mentioned Thales and Elbit, as well as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, BAE (British Aerospace), Leonardo, Honeywell and Northrop Grumman.

Information technology software and online platforms are also in the defence game, including companies like IBM, who has partnerships with Israeli military Computer Service and Cyber Defense Divisions, as well as Google and Amazon, who have a US$1.2 billion contract known as “Project Nimbus” with the Israeli government. These companies have a web of financial relationships with Australian universities.

There are also a number of makers of weapons and components listed on the Australian Stock Exchange that have deals with Australian universities. Bisalloy Ltd, which makes high-tensile and abrasion-resistant quenched and tempered steel plate, also has a contract with Israel-based Rafael Advanced Defence Systems and a partnership with the University of Wollongong. Archer Materials Limited has a partnership with IBM and Western Sydney University for quantum computing – a major focus for militaries and defence departments around the world.

Khartabil notes that many of the research deals between weapons makers hide behind “dual purpose” agreements.

One example is Italian arms dealer Leonardo. In 2022, Leonardo Australia and the University of Melbourne inked a Memorandum of Understanding related to new space technology being developed at the Melbourne Space Laboratory (MSL). A statement at the time said this was specifically for applications for defence (Space Domain Awareness), emergency management (wildfires) and sustainable economic development (climate change).

“Students can carry out research and think it is for environmental reasons but they have no idea that it can be used for defence – and genocide, they have no control over where their research ends up”, she says, a sentiment echoed by Brennan.

AUKUS has helped bolster the government’s defence aims, and universities have been drawn in to play their part with a $128 million fund for 4,000 places at 16 universities for its AUKUS submarine program, launched by the Albanese government last year, the latest move co-opt our universities further into the military-industrial complex.

AUKUS submarines “nation building” says Admiral. No they’re not, says Rex Patrick

Yet, there was no mention of the role of Defence and the arms dealers that supply in Education Minister Jason Clare’s Universities Accord, which was launched earlier this year. It was included in the 400-odd pages of the first major review of the tertiary sector in 15 years. The booming defence sector appears to have been studiously left out of the lengthy table of sectors where jobs would be needed, which served as the Accord’s opening gambit.

Despite this, Australia’s long and often dubious connections to the defence sector have been brazenly supercharged by the Funds-for-AUKUS deal for universities. The public relations cover is that it is for all-the-rage STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) courses, the lack of demand for which has been bemoaned for decades by several reviews. Higher Education Professor at Australian National University Andrew Norton says:

In reality, however, universities will need to divert resources from other activities to support nuclear submarine training.

This means other courses and facilities will suffer at the expense of those demanded by defence chiefs and their government masters (or is it the other way around?).

The Adelaide ‘hub’

Unsurprisingly, Adelaide, home to Australia’s submarine subsector, is at the epicentre of defence, arms dealers, and higher education cooperation.

The Defence Innovation Partnership is a collaborative initiative of Defence SA, DST and South Australia’s three public universities, the University of Adelaide, Flinders University and the University of South Australia.

Adelaide University, Flinders University and the University of South Australia are all part of a research network funded by BAE Systems, who, according to a BAE press release, involves “creation of new defence-focused courses and targeted research and development.”

Another example is Boeing Australia spending $50 million to collaborate with the University of Adelaide and the University of New South Wales through the Defence Trailblazer Concept to Sovereign Capability (CSC) project to help

fast-track research outcomes into the next generation of Australian-made defence products.

The list of these deals is long. Students have clearly had enough, but will the often increasingly profit-focused leaders of Australia’s universities listen? Sydney Uni’s Mark Scott and Melbourne Uni’s Duncan Maskell, both on salaries of over $1 million partly powered by weapons makers who throw money at their universities, are about to show whether they are ready to listen to students’ concerns or just continue with business – with arms dealers – as usual.

Say No to War: why Australia needs to stay clear of Biden and Netanyahu’s genocide of the Palestinians

Michael Sainsbury is a former China correspondent who has lived and worked across North, Southeast and South Asia for 11 years. Now based in regional Australia, he has more than 25 years’ experience writing about business, politics and human rights in Australia and the Indo-Pacific. He has worked for News Corp, Fairfax, Nikkei and a range of independent media outlets and has won multiple awards in Australia and Asia for his reporting. He is a fierce believer in the importance of independent media.

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