Peace in our time? Nah, better teach them war

Our universities have scrapped degrees on peace making, preferring we learn to make war.

Last year, Sydney University stopped offering its Peace and Conflict masters program, one of the only degrees on peace in the country. At the time, a university spokesperson told Honi the degree needed to be scrapped “in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of our important postgraduate programs.”

Universities across Australia engaged in similar ‘cost-cutting’ throughout the  pandemic, shedding degrees in mathematics, science and theatre studies. But none cut their degrees on war. Degrees and courses on war, military strategy and national security, including cyber warfare, exist at Sydney, UNSW, Flinders, Curtin and ANU, among others. Programs on war and military strategy form part of a broader military-university industrial complex in Australia, where ideological and research partnerships make universities benefactors of death and conflict. The American Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, for example, receives funding from Raytheon, a US weapons manufacturer. Australian defence personnel get trained on Sydney’s campus grounds. The University of Melbourne has controversial links with Lockheed Martin, a nuclear weapons manufacturer. 

“Leadership for good starts here,” reads the University of Sydney’s marketing material. Yet  the universities of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Flinders have invested millions and formed major partnerships with the major weapons manufacturers. In 2019, BAE Systems, a British arms manufacturer, contributed $10 million to defence research and courses at Adelaide, Flinders and South Australia. In 2016, Lockheed Martin contributed $13 million to Melbourne and RMIT to create a defence research hub. Sydney University leads the other universities in its receipt of military funding.  

Research funding at major universities is also being directed towards new military technologies. In 2019, the Defence Innovation Hub awarded contracts with a combined value of $15.1 million to nine Australian businesses and universities to develop innovative defence technologies. Western Sydney received a grant to develop “neuromorphic sensing technology,” or “imaging capabilities to ground and satellite based sensing systems.” The same technology is used in autonomous drones. In 2020, Deakin University received a grant to develop “Australia’s first high G-force training simulator” for air force pilots. This year, a South Korean defence agency partnered with the Centre for Field Robotics at Sydney, to develop “mapping techniques” for robots “in dynamic environments”, as it is euphemistically put.

In 1946, George Orwell wrote an article on the politics of language, noting the manner in which politicians use weak language (“collateral damage,” “pacify,” “cleanse,” “national security”), as cover for war crimes. Such language takes a critical perspective to decipher. This is eerily familiar to the Russian President’s “strategic operation” in Ukraine.

Universities use such language too. At ANU, you can learn how to conduct “Military Operations” rather than foreign invasions. At Flinders, you can learn how to become a “Combat and Automation Systems Engineer” rather than an expert in drone warfare. At Macquarie, you can study “multidimensional non-traditional security challenges” although they do make clear that they also teach “the use of military force”. Our universities think that they can hide that they are teaching us to make war, while refusing to teach us to make peace.

Universities have a longstanding tradition as civic institutions, imbued by the public with moral value and public service. The oldest English university in the world, Oxford University, for example, has charitable status. In fact, most universities in the United Kingdom have charitable status for the “advancement of education”. This traditional role as a public charitable service appears incompatible with the pursuit of private defence contracts.

Furthermore, ethical standards are a central part of how Australian universities market themselves to the world. The National Health and Medical Research Council insists that all research involving humans has “ethical dimensions.” Military research, when considered from this perspective, has ethical dimensions too. Why, if it is unethical to harm a human in clinical trials, is it then ethical to contribute to research on drone warfare? 

All of the information in this article was publicly sourced, often alongside quotes by Vice Chancellors that praised the defence-university partnership deals. “It’s good for all parties, including our students who benefit from these relationships both during their education and upon graduation when they enter the job market,” said Dain Alcorn, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of RMIT. “Our focus on impact through deep expertise and research excellence, places us in an ideal position to assist Lockheed Martin with their research goals,” said Glyn Davis, Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University. With these statements, our universities are making it clear, that they are happy to prioritise research on war rather than on peace.

Australian universities are well placed to become world leaders in peace education, establishing courses that promote diplomacy and conflict resolution. As one of eight nations that helped draft the UN Declaration of Human Rights and a contributor to 62 UN and other multilateral peace missions, Australia has a long history of involvement in the peace sector. Why not use this history, and our large bench of talented peace-builders and diplomats, to teach a new generation?

Our universities ought to rebalance their priorities toward peace by divesting from arms dealers, defence companies and national agencies who promote and prolong warfare. Weapons manufacturers have a questionable role in funding education or shaping the contents of our curriculum. The profits of war ought not to become the profits of the university. Much like clinical researchers who breach ethical standards during human trials, when military researchers create new technologies that cause “collateral damage” to civilians in battle, those researchers ought to be held morally accountable. Our universities have a choice. Either they stand on the right side of history, or they cause the wrong side of history to occur.