Israel divestment calls are also a demand for shared decision-making

The Edinburgh protests underline the need for meaningful ways for students, staff and community to govern the university together, says Kevin Donovan

May 17, 2024
The University of Edinburgh's Old College
Source: iStock/Aniruddha Chatterjee

On 5 May, a group of students pitched tents on the lawn of the University of Edinburgh’s most picturesque campus quad to protest the violence in Palestine and the university’s inaction in the face of demands for a substantive response. Some have reportedly begun a hunger strike.

The students have made a number of demands concerning university policies and research, but the heart of their campaign is a call for the university to move its investments out of “companies and investment funds that support the Israeli military or uphold the Israeli apartheid system.” They point to Edinburgh holding shares in technology firms working with the Israeli military and in banking institutions that support illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Edinburgh’s vice-chancellor, Peter Mathieson, has promised to respect the students’ right to protest, but the protestors expressed scepticism that their demands will be met, arguing that previous entreaties since the conflict began have been largely stonewalled.

Institutional impulses in such moments are often to proclaim that university investments are not political. Edinburgh’s finances, for instance, are overseen by an investment committee of largely non-university members drawn from finance, consulting and biotech, who are charged with ensuring that the investments yield a strong financial return and minimise risks to the balance sheet. Committee members are nominated through a subcommittee of the university court, which only has a tiny representation of staff and students.

Moreover, a large portion of the £660 million of “investment assets” held by the university as of July 2023 was in generic portfolios managed by financial giants such as Blackrock and Northern Trust, whose investment decisions are insulated from influence, even of the university’s Investment Committee.

However, since its adoption of the UN Principles for Responsible Investing more than a decade ago, Edinburgh has touted its use of ethical values in seeking financial value (reflected in the Investment Committee’s terms of reference). The centrepiece has been the reallocation of capital away from fossil fuels towards clean-energy ventures. Mathieson also insisted in his statement to protesting students that the university does not invest in “controversial weapons” (although, in doing so, raising questions about what constitutes an uncontroversial way to do violence).

A 2015 decision to explicitly divest from three coal and tar sands companies was the result of a Fossil Fuels Review and was followed by a full divestment from oil and gas polluters. This won the university various industry awards and nominations for its sustainability policies, including for its investment decisions.

But while the green kudos accrued to the university and its management, the truth is that these decisions were driven by pressure from student activists. Campus groups such as People & Planet had long campaigned for the university to use its expertise and resources to help find clean energy sources and to decarbonise its campus, yet they were frequently frustrated by half-measures and delays in the name of “engagement” and “consultation”, prompting one group to occupy the finance department’s office in 2015. In a particularly ignominious reaction, university security guards attacked the protestors.

While, ultimately, the students were vindicated, it was perhaps a bitter victory: the byzantine investment structures outlined above meant that although full divestment was announced in 2018, it was not completed until 2021 – by which time numerous clean energy ventures were struggling for lack of capital.

Today, Edinburgh students are again insisting that not only our research and teaching but also our resources are a political and ethical subject. And, once again, management needs to find the courage to live up to the university’s stated values and policies.

There are models for this: at Brown University, Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota, administrators have agreed to review their stock holdings in response to student protests concerning Palestine. Trinity College Dublin management has also now promised a “complete divestment from investments in Israeli companies that have activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and appear on the UN blacklist”.

To its credit, Edinburgh leadership announced on 9 May a new consultation on the university’s Responsible Investment Policy, spurred no doubt by the student activism. But the difference between formalistic, drawn-out consultation rituals and meaningful collective governance is significant. We should see in the students’ actions a call for the latter.

Those students reading in tents, chanting slogans and posting to social media from Edinburgh’s Old College are demanding that the university be a space for shared decision-making. This will require more than engagement and dialogue. It will require establishing more meaningful avenues for students, staff and community to govern the university together. And the same goes for all the other protests that have spread across the US, the UK and the rest of the world in recent weeks.

University investments should be part of this remit. It is reasonable that investments are insulated from passing whims and guided expertly – endowments are built to last, after all. But the current state of affairs at Edinburgh means that delays still appear to be the modus operandi when the ethics of investments are challenged.

This lack of institutional commitment stood in contrast to the prescient, principled demands of previous cohorts of students for divestment from fossil fuels. The university has a chance to do better this time.

Kevin P. Donovan is a lecturer in African studies and international development at the University of Edinburgh.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles