A closer look at UWE Bristol’s “Distinguished Address Series”

Since 2008, UWE’s Bristol Business School has been running the so-called “Bristol Distinguished Address Series“. This series is described by the university as “a unique opportunity to hear about the challenges, issues and decisions being made at the highest level of strategic leadership” and promoted as an opportunity to “meet leaders of industry“. However, more than a platform enabling and relaying the university’s pro-business agenda, this series has featured several arms companies.

On 16 October 2014, as part of the so-called “Bristol Distinguished Address Series“, UWE Bristol hosted Leo Quinn, the CEO of QinetiQ. QinetiQ is the 6th largest UK arms company  according to tCampaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), and the 52th biggest global defence company by revenue according to Defence News’ Top 100 for 2012. Qinetiq prides itself on its expertise designing weapons, and for providing facilities and products for testing weapons. It is a close partner of the Ministry of Defence, from which it received £998m in 2013 as the third five-year term payment of a 25-years long partnering agreement.

A postcard produced by campaigners highlights the kind of technology QinetiQ makes its business from, and how it is used. Source: Better Together.

This is not the first time UWE invites this particular arms dealer. On 28 October 2009, the same “distinguished address” series invited Graham Love, then QinetiQ’s Chief Executive Officer. Interestingly, one day after being celebrated as an exemplary business leader at UWE, Graham Love would quit his job after the company was criticised for “fail[ing] to properly fulfil its duties as an independent advisor” in the investigation of the Nimrod plane crash that claimed 14 lives.

Qinetic_and_friendsFrom left to right: Jane Harrington (Pro Vice-Chancellor and Executive Dean of UWE’s Faculty of Business and Law and UWE Governor), Graham Love (CEO of  QinetiQ), John Rushforth (UWE’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor) and Nicholas O’Regan (UWE Professor at Bristol Business School and founder of the “Distinguished Address Series”). Picture taken the day of Graham Love’s speech on 28 October 2009 at UWE Bristol (Frenchay campus), and one day before the CEO of QinetiQ quit his job following the Nimrod plane crash scandal. Picture from UWE Bristol Business School flickr account.

QinetiQ is also not the only arms dealer UWE has hosted as part of this “lecture” series. Past guests have included BAE Systems (3rd biggest global defence company according to Defence News’2012 ranking), Boeing (2nd biggest according to the same ranking), nuclear specialists Babcock, (32nd biggest) or  Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S, self-described as a “bespoke trading entity” of the MoD with an annual budget of £14 billion). Besides speakers from the arms trade, the series also featured managers of “distinguished” businesses such as Tesco, Hilton or Lloyds Banking Group.

The Bristol Distinguished Address Series (also sometimes referred to as Distinguished Executive Address Series, DEA) has been running since at least 2008. According to David Pinchard, the series was launched by Nicholas O’Reagan, a Professor at Bristol Business School. Achieved in partnership with pro-business organisations such as Business Westthe UK’s top business lobbying organisation, the Institute of Directors, or Bristol Junior Chamber, it  is UWE Bristol’s event to engage with, celebrate and facilitate big business, thus contributing to the university’s pro-business “partnership” strategy.

Thus, while those events are branded as a “lecture” and promoted to students as a “a unique opportunity to hear about the challenges, issues and decisions being made at the highest level of strategic leadership”, they are also advertised to the business community as a social and networking event complete with “wine and canapes”: After every event there is an opportunity to network and build up your business industry contacts.

For the university, it seems that any business goes. Distinguishing such managers and setting them as models is completely unproblematic. Hence, for example, QinetiQ’s talk was about “cultural transformation”. The fact that QinetiQ makes huge profits through developing, testing and manufacturing arms was written off the event’s description, UWE speaking instead of the country’s “largest research and technology organisation”. Moreover, the university’s spokesperson claimed that the event represented the university’s “culture of free and open discussion. UWE Bristol thus not just trivialises the arms trade, but celebrates and furthers  corporate greed including profiteers from the business of death, under the pretence of democracy.

Does a speech by a business manager constitute democratic debate? Should UWE keep celebrating and enabling the arms trade through its “distinguished” #BristolLecture series? Is it ok for a university to legitimise the arms trade, trivialising it and making it look respectable? Is it ok for a university to further the interests of any business? And should UWE’s “distinguished address series” host a high-ranking manager of British Petroleum on 11 February 2015, at the beginning of Bristol Green Capital? Let us know what you think over here and/or on twitter (#BristolLectures).