Universities aren’t walking the walk on sustainability – not even close

While HEIs continue to take tens of millions of pounds from oil companies, their integrity and commitment to the SDGs looks shaky at best, says James Derounian

James Derounian's avatar
Visiting Professor
24 Mar 2022
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Universities and higher education institutions need to sever ties with oil companies and get their ethics in order if they want to tackle the SDGs

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If you asked the public what universities are for, you might – in a time of pandemic – find people acknowledging the value of science and evidence-led policymaking. Or perhaps, in relation to climate change, recognising that researchers can accurately identify issues and suggest appropriate means to tackle them.

A distant relative of mine – the beatified John Henry Newman – wrote in 1852 that a “university is a place…where inquiry is pushed forward…discoveries verified and…error exposed”. This article highlights perceived flaws – and ways of addressing them.

As an example, in 2021 The Guardian newspaper reported that universities took £89 million from oil companies over the previous four years. Justification for this by the universities and colleges was given in terms of encouraging fossil fuel producers to switch to greener technologies. Even if this was so, it surely means that researchers are in the process lending their name and standing to current “dirty producers”, which may in turn prolong companies’ bad behaviour and lend them kudos through association.

Rather than looking back to the future, why not embrace ethically sound divestment, investment in and sponsorship from renewables such as wind, wave and solar, or from electric car manufacturers? Shouldn’t that be a function of higher education: to inform and educate, yes, but also to encourage independent and critical thinkers?

In 2012, Lisa Catherine Ehrich and colleagues researched doubtful practices and ethical dilemmas in universities – noting how some staff respondents referred to the misuse of power by senior managers when they cajoled or forced course coordinators into pursuing a course of action that did not conform with their professional ethics. They went on to highlight a sense of powerlessness that many academics apparently felt when matters of ethics confront them in practice, with some referring to closed cultures within universities that discouraged questioning of unethical practices. Seven types of unethical behaviour were observed: exploitation of junior staff; bullying or vendettas; favouritism; sexual impropriety; inattention to policies or guidelines; lack of professional ethics or of care; and lack of confidentiality.

A 2018 headline in Varsity (an independent newspaper for the University of Cambridge) trumpeted that “The unethical investments of some Cambridge colleges must go”. In it, the author cited a review of Oxbridge college investments: “Cambridge colleges invest just over £70 million in offshore funds, including some with links to oil and gas exploration.” She went on to note that Trinity College at that time had £64,000 invested in the mining giant Freeport-McMoran. A New York Times piece published in 2005, about the Grasberg copper mine then operated by the company in Indonesia, described it in apocalyptical terms as “a spreading soot-coloured bruise of almost a billion tons of mine waste that the New Orleans-based company has dumped directly into a jungle river of what had been one of the world’s last untouched landscapes”.

Universities need to put money where their mouths are and invest in ethically sound businesses. The aforementioned Guardian article revealed that a number of institutions “refused to reveal details of any links” to funders. How can HEIs claim authority for promoting critical thinking by their students when they fail to practice this themselves?

But then again, in a capitalist system where students are seen as walking moneybags and gagging orders and insecure contracts exist, such behaviour fits a pattern. Pursuit of profit can lead to suppression of admission of error, under the banner of reputational protection and damage limitation. Casualties of such an approach are genuine encouragement of whistleblowing, transparency and the seeking of truth.

A way forward surely lies in systemic, top-to-toe, ethically driven review and action by each university to ensure sustainable and ethical development across all activities – teaching, research, buildings, campuses and administration. For example, HEIs should carefully consider whether to establish or continue teaching and operating in doubtful locations, including countries that deny basic human rights, such as Azerbaijan and China. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the West has discovered the power of economic boycott.

On the teaching front, there’s no doubt that students love field trips (especially to exotic locations), but again, proper consideration needs to be given to whether such travel, air miles, cost and impact are justifiable. The same is true of staff in terms of overseas travel to conduct research – is it essential? Do university buildings operate efficiently and in a way that contributes to addressing climate change? Then there’s the issue of location and whether a university and campus sit like a parasite in the midst of its host, extracting from its surrounds, or does it genuinely contribute, enable, engage and improve its local community?

There are already methods and examples of how universities can take their ethical responsibilities more seriously. The American Psychological Association encourages instructors to deliberately foster a learning atmosphere that promotes ethical student behaviour. They suggest that teaching academics demonstrate ethical behaviour in the way that a course is assembled and delivered, in order to act as a model or template for student behaviour. Do as I do, not as I say.

Research from Russia has suggested that universities should develop ethics centres that help students and staff make good decisions in contact sessions. The University of York in the UK offers a strategic commitment in the form of a code of practice and principles for good ethical governance. This code “applies to all academic activity undertaken in the university’s name or on its behalf, including research, teaching, consultancy and outreach work”. To ensure buy-in and a degree of ownership by staff and students, it is recommended that such stakeholders are involved in the process of generating these codes.

It is also time for HEIs to implement Education for Sustainable Development, so that students, staff and graduates can meaningfully critique the prevailing, yet unsustainable, market-driven model that is pushing us like lemmings over the edge of the climate change cliff. Likewise, the People and Planet fossil fuel campaign requires universities to enact net zero policies with urgency rather than at some vague aspirational date in the future and even produces its own league table ranking UK universities according to their fossil-free commitments.

The Institute of Business Ethics concluded in a report that “there is no coherent or consistent approach to documenting ethical policy in UK HEIs at present”. Surely now is the time for universities to deliver policies that set the parameters and implementation by which they act. As well as providing critical commentary on actions by other organisations, universities themselves must speak from a position of integrity and transparency – otherwise their words will continue to ring hollow on the biggest issues.

James Derounian lectures on community governance. He is a National Teaching Fellow and a visiting professor at the University of Bolton.

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