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Israel-Palestine war: Luton college suspends ties with arms firm after student protest

Hundreds of students walked out of Luton Sixth Form College to oppose its partnership with aerospace company supplying Israeli military
Luton Sixth Form College disbanded its student council after the body led protests in support of Palestine and to oppose Leonardo's presence on campus (Supplied)

A college in Luton has suspended its relationship with the British subsidiary of an Italian aerospace company that supplies components to the Israeli military after hundreds of students walked out of their classes to protest for Palestine.

Luton Sixth Form College confirmed on Wednesday that it had suspended all activities with Leonardo following student-led protests against its presence on campus.

In an online statement sent to students and staff, the college confirmed that "all further activities with Leonardo will be suspended until further notice".

"There has been some inaccurate reference to the college being closely affiliated with Leonardo - an engineering firm... that makes navigation parts for some aircraft, including some military aircraft," it said. 

"They attend career fairs for schools and colleges in Luton to offer work placements to students and, have been in attendance at our job fairs, and have offered work experience opportunities to some of our STEM students.

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"That is the extent of our relationship with Leonardo, and we are currently reviewing our position with them in conjunction with Luton Borough Council and other schools and colleges."

Luton Sixth Form College made its statement after disbanding the student council, which organised the pro-Palestine protests against Leonardo earlier this month, and announced plans to invite a group called Shout Out UK on campus to talk about media literacy and disinformation. 

A spokesperson for Luton Sixth Form College denied that it disbanded the student council because of the pro-Palestine protests and said the council's term typically ends in November to coincide with preparation for exams.

"As in previous years, we are delighted to welcome our new future young leaders of the Student Council 2024 who we will be having their first meeting on 5th December with senior leaders in attendance to discuss some of the emerging issues raised by the previous council.," the spokesperson said via email to MEE.

"We discussed this with the Student Council 2023 a few weeks ago and agreed that we would contact them if we needed them to support their successors as long as it did not impact on their studies.  We wish the Student Council 2023 all the best with their upcoming assessments and examinations."

Leonardo did not respond to requests for comment at the time of writing. 

Shout Out UK also posted on its social media pages that it had been invited to visit Luton Sixth Form College to provide a series of lessons on media literacy and "prevent radicalisation and extremism".

Earlier this month, images posted online and sent to Middle East Eye showed hundreds of students gathered on the college courtyard to protest against its involvement with Leonardo and in support of Palestine.

Students protest

Following the protest, hundreds of students also signed an open letter calling on the college to completely cut ties with Leonardo.

Hassan Sajjad, who chaired the student council, confirmed to Middle East Eye that students will continue protesting until the college completely cuts ties to Leonardo.

'We're going to continue placing pressure till the college cuts ties with Leonardo and ensure that the college has transparency in its decision'

- Hassan Sajjad, student leader

"We're going to continue placing pressure till the college cuts ties with Leonardo and ensure that the college has transparency in its decision," said Sajjad.

Sajjad said the head of the college had told him that he planned to speak to Leonardo representatives to hear their perspective, "so nothing is concrete at this time".

Sajjad added: "The decision to disband the student council was done behind closed doors without informing them of whether or not they want to finish this year's session early. So we want that element of student input to be stronger within the college."

One student, who helped organise the protest and wished to remain anonymous, told MEE that many within the student community had been unaware of Leonardo's business interests in Israel before the student action.

"College should be a place where we are educated, not funnelled to join arms companies like Leonardo," the student said.

Follow Middle East Eye's live coverage for the latest on the Israel-Palestine war

Commenting on the college's reaction to the protest, the student said another motivation behind the protests was the college ignoring concerns raised via the student council.

"Its crazy that one of the first things the college did was disband the student council, when its term typically lasts until March or April, to coincide with exams and near the end of the academic year," said the student.

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Students had written to the head of the college and another member of staff but had not received a response, the student said.

Leonardo, formerly known as Finmeccanica, is an Italian aerospace and defence company that is the world's ninth-largest arms company. The company supplies military helicopters, warplanes, drones, missiles, naval guns, artillery and armoured combat vehicles to armies across the world. 

The Italian company has been in Luton since 2003, and says it employs 1,000 people in the area. Leonardo also says it has "strong connections" with local schools, colleges, and universities. 

In June, the Israeli Ministry of Defence selected Leonardo to supply the Israeli army with air surveillance and radar technology. The company has also previously supplied the Israeli Air Force with warplanes. 

AgustaWestland, a subsidiary of Leonardo, makes components for Apache attack helicopters used by Israel in Gaza, according to Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

Leonardo has also sold seven training helicopters to the Israeli military worth billions of dollars. 

Earlier this month, activists from Palestine Action occupied the roof of a Leonardo factory in Southhampton to oppose its involvement in Israel.

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