As most people in Britain nervously await the impact of the ConDems' cuts, and thousands of potential students wonder if they can afford a hike in fees, at least one group are rubbing their hands at the new opportunities this situation affords them. Arms companies are eagerly anticipating the death of free education as they prepare to swoop on its carcass.
They are not the only ones. Unscrupulous employers are happy to benefit from the high unemployment that reduces workers' choices. And the commercialisation of education opens doors to businesses keen to profit from what should be a public service.
What is different for arms firms is that they already have close relationships with higher education – relationships which have come under threat in recent years.
Growing public hostility to the arms trade has been matched by a rise in student activism. Several universities, from Bangor to St Andrew's to University College London, have ditched shares in arms companies following campaigns by students and staff.
At least one arms firm has lowered its minimum entry requirements for graduate engineers, suggesting they are finding it harder to convince them that working in the arms trade is a great career choice.
But as they look at Cameron's vicious assault on jobs, welfare and education, arms dealers may hope that a dearth of employment opportunities will drive desperate graduates into their arms. But it is too soon for the arms dealers to put their feet up and relax, because a wave of anti-arms protests has broken out at university careers fairs.
A recruitment fair in Edinburgh was closed down last month after students lay down in front of BAE's stall. Police and security guards later struggled to contain peaceful demonstrators at the London Graduate Fair. Around fifteen were forcibly removed, but a BAE presentation was dominated by questions about corruption and poverty.
While such protests have been common for several years, the economic situation has not hindered them – there are more than ever. Protests are expected at a string of universities in coming weeks.
The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has upped the pressure with the launch of its own Ban BAE campaign, focused on recruitment at universities. CAAT is responding to grassroots campaigns that have sprung up naturally, playing a co-ordinating role for students across the country.
CAAT are not the only ones concerned. The student campaigning network People & Planet, the Student Christian Movement and Students for Justice in Palestine have all spoken out against arms companies' involvement in education.
As ministers slash higher education funding, they have given students another reason to campaign against arms dealers, who will be among the businesses hoping to fill the funding gap. CAAT and the Fellowship of Reconciliation found that 26 leading UK universities received contracts worth at least £725m from arms companies and military bodies between 2001 and 2006.
Universities don't get this money for nothing. BAE representatives sit on a number of course committees. Undergraduate engineers at Loughborough University are offered bursaries by BAE – as long as they work for BAE during their industry year.
Tom Taylor, who graduated from Loughborough in 2007, says that, “Elements of the course were tailored to BAE's requirements”. When he received a student award sponsored by BAE, Tom donated the prize money to CAAT, saying that “engineers can do a lot more with their skills than just help the arms trade”.
This is one reason why the arms industry is a crucial target. Future generations will look back in disbelief, unable to explain why our society funded skills and technology required by arms dealers, rather than those urgently needed to tackle climate change.
The profits of arms companies like BAE are achieved by sales to oppressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, by poverty that is fuelled when countries such as Pakistan and India waste money on arms, by civilian deaths in West Papua, as Indonesia bombs them with weapons made in the West.
Some argue that arms companies should be allowed at careers fairs so that individual students can make their own choices. But they overlook the imbalance of power that stifles real choice. Activists who handed out leaflets at a recent graduate fair were told, “You can leaflet if you pay £300”.
It is not only individuals, but organisations, who have a responsibility to make ethical choices. Universities face increasing pressure to recognise that giving space to arms dealers is the moral equivalent of allowing drug-dealers or sex traffickers to go about their business on their campuses. The Guardian is likely to face calls to end its sponsorship of the London Graduate Fair.
In contrast to the arms dealers, the campus campaigners are committed to nonviolence. At its best, nonviolent activism goes beyond a refusal to use the tools of the aggressor. It includes a rejection of hierarchy and personal hatred.
Kathleen Bright, who was forcibly removed from the London Graduate Fair, told me it was her first time doing “this kind of action”. She said that the planning meeting was “very co-operative, empowering, non-hierarchical, fully practical but allowing everyone to do as much as they wanted and only as much as they wanted”.
No doubt the arms dealers want us to dismiss these campaigners as disgruntled extremists. This is not only wildly inaccurate, it also underestimates the diversity of those involved. Some are pacifists, some are members of left-wing groups, some are motivated by their religion. Many are simply individuals with a conscience.
As Imogen Michel, a history student in Edinburgh, put it, “When we see something that's clearly wrong happening, we have to do something about it”.
In that one sentence, she summed up a call to conscience that neither Cameron's cuts nor BAE's bursaries will be able to suppress.
(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. From 2006-2009, he oversaw media relations at the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and remains a member of its Steering Committee.
This article appeared originally in the Morning Star on 25 October 2010. See http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/index.php/news/content/view/full/96793 .