Students protest against military research at University of Wollongong
Students protested outside the University of Wollongong’s careers fair in outrage over its involvement in a defence research program. Sara Vincent reports.
Students at the University of Wollongong say they will continue to protest against the university’s partnership in a seven-year research program which they claim is involved in the development of weaponry and materials used in the war in Afghanistan.
The group Students Against the War (SAW) says it is outraged about the university’s partnership in the defence research program being conducted within the Defence Materials Technology Centre (DMTC).
According to the Department of Defence website, the Defence Materials Technology Centre “brings together expertise in the materials sciences from the Australian Government, industry, and academia to make a significant contribution to improving Australian Defence Force capability across military platforms in the battlespace.” It cites Wollongong University as one of five universities (including The University of Queensland, Swinburne University of Technology, The University of Melbourne and RMIT University) working with Defence and private sector industries on four research programs: air platforms; maritime platforms; armour applications and propulsion systems.
The University of Wollongong’s involvement with the centre began in 2007 with the help of Commonwealth government and industry funding. According to the founder of Students Against the War, Ella Ryan, the group was formed when she learned that materials developed at Wollongong could potentially be used to develop more efficient armoury for use in war.
“The engineering department is conducting metals research that go into items such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Bushmaster that is being used in our war of occupation in Afghanistan,” said Ryan.
SAW has staged a number of protests and forums objecting to the university’s involvement. In April they organized a protest outside the engineering careers fair centre at UOW, where BAE systems (a global defence and security company) had a stall offering career opportunities for students. When the university responded by blocking the students from entering the fair, they used a megaphone to chant “BAE out now” and distributed information urging “War profiteers out of UOW.”
Millie Robinson, a member of SAW, said the relationship between BAE Systems and UOW was showing support for war and must be protested.
“The government increasing the money spent in the military budget each year whilst decreasing the amount spent on education, welfare and various other avenues of social policy has a real and tangible affect on a young person’s life,” she said.
Responding to the students’ claims, Heidi Garth, the Programs and Communications’ Manager for the DMTC at Wollongong, said that BAE Systems is a partner of the centre, but no research involving BAE is being conducted at UOW.
Garth agreed that the university’s research is looking into the development of more cost-effective and durable defence materials for Australian forces. But she said that currently there was no project directed at the development of defence weaponry. Claims that research at the centre is only intended to be used in more efficient armours are false.
“The defence funding has allowed the facilities available to be enhanced and to conduct more generic non-defence research. For example, a state of the art robotic automation facility has been built and this is being used for non-defence applications such as investigations into the weldabillity of coated steels for buildings and corrosion-resistant materials for rail wagons,” Garth said.
Garth made the point that the university receives net funding from DMTC to support its research, which includes currently employing 4.5 Postdoctoral Fellows and providing five PhD scholarships.
According to SAW member Christian Darby, UOW is misallocating the university’s funds. The university received millions of dollars as funding from the DMTC it was all going into military research, he said.
“There’s been a huge discrepancy between what the university decides to prioritise and what students actually want them to prioritise,” said Robinson.
SAW’s Millie Robinson said the students were concerned that the heavy reliance on defence funding and research meant that there was a “militarizing” of the campus, with other programs being sidelined or even cut completely. She cited the university’s music courses, which would be discontinued from next year.
Heidi Garth said that UOW welcomes SAW voicing its opinion about the DMTC, but the university has no intention of ceasing work in this area.
“UOW believes it is important to protect the lives of Australian soldiers who are deployed in conflicts around the world. The materials and manufacturing technology being developed at UOW is designed to protect soldiers from harm and is purely defensive,” she said.
SAW members say they are determined to continue to pressure the university to ban the research on defence materials being conducted by DMTC.
“There are many peaceful defence alternatives apart from war and building weapons,” said Millie Robinson. “We can promote peace building strategies and peaceful interactions in society to help destabilise the increasingly militarised society.”