This article of mine was originally published in the Huffington Post.
Now that the new academic year is starting, vans painted in camouflage colours are present in university campuses across the country. Next to these vans, smiley and well-groomed soldiers are trying to lure students into enlisting in the Naval Service, the British Army or the Royal Air Force. The promise is that their fees are going to be payed and a prosperous career in the armed forces is to be expected.
Surprisingly, there is very little criticism of the presence of the armed forces in the universities. Hidden under the cloak of heroism and necessity, the military, navy and air force are beyond scrutiny.
Now that each student is expected to pay £9,000 to get a place in a Russell Group university, it is pertinent to question whether it is permissible to have the armed forces in campuses, promising fee weavers and blooming careers to young undergraduates who are financially struggling to pay their way through university. Are the armed forces exploiting needy students who are in a weaker bargaining position?
The main criticism ought to be directed towards the Universities. As far as the armed forces are concerned they are doing nothing wrong. To the very least, they are doing what their contemporaries around the world do – they are appealing to those sections of the society that are needy enough to be willing to fight wars that the rest of us do not really bother with.
The armed forces have modernised their recruitment methods in an attempt to humanise what is, ultimately, a very violent industry. The casual conversations and the kind smiles of the well-postured men and women soldiers, as well as the free gifts and coffee, are marketing tricks that replace the much censored images of those, both dead and alive, that return from battle.
Anyone that teaches at a university knows that the most important part of our jobs is to help students cultivate the critical skills necessary to form an informed position, following the examination of all the competing views. This high standard is one that is violated by the presence of the camouflaged vans on university campuses, for they present an one-sided view of the military, which misrepresents the realities and the consequences of war.
The presence of the military vans in Britain’s universities is a form of exploitation. Exploitation exists where there is asymmetry in the power relations between two parties and where one party manipulates the other to his advantage. This form of exploitation, although morally questionable, is something that it is acceptable in the markets. The Universities conduct their affairs by higher standards and should not be doing such concessions.
It is now time to resist the presence of the armed forces on university grounds. The British public is growing increasingly weary of the necessity of the military – Tony Blair was driven out of office largely because of his wars and David Cameron was recently defeated in his call for military action against Syria. At the same time students are in an ever worse position, facing two different crises and a bleak future. They face the student loan crisis, where they are forced to take debt that they are often not able to repay because of the second crisis, the graduate unemployment crisis, which has worsen, since it is no longer a given that a university degree will lead to a well-paid job.
It is time that the universities live up to their high standards and help their students decide for themselves whether they want to join the army or not. Help them exercise their agency rather than allow the armed forces to exploit and take advantage of the inequalities of the market from within university grounds.