Are universities failing their students on fossil fuel issues?

A campaigner from Fossil Free UCL explains why students must hold their universities to account on environmental issues

Student life
Julia Hashimoto Schaff's avatar

Julia Hashimoto Schaff

November 18 2016
Climate change protest in London


BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, gave University College London $10 million in 2011 to establish an Institute of Sustainable Resources: a situation as ironic as a tobacco company funding cancer research. A year later UCL named BHP Billiton its Enterprise Partner of the Year, while just last month members of communities suffering from the environmental, social and economic impact of BHP Billiton’s mines travelled to London to protest at the company’s annual general meeting.

Affiliations with universities are sought after by fossil fuel companies, and they often sponsor and fund research and faculties in return for honorary degrees, prizes and platforms to give conferences – perfect for upholding their company’s prestige.

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I won’t reiterate the statistics from intergovernmental organisations, the quotes from A-list celebrities, and the excerpts from scientific studies. The short truth is that climate change is a pressing concern.

But many students don’t know that even just by paying tuition, we are funding the fossil fuel industry. UK universities have invested an estimated £62.2 billion in these corporations – up to £2,083 per student in the UK. This amount would be considered a profitable component of any company portfolio.

Not only are these the companies responsible for greenhouse gases and catastrophic accidents, they are also complicit in alarming human rights violations of indigenous people, and in making deals with military juntas, yet they deny responsibility for any of the 1,176 deaths of environmental activists reported by Global Witness since 2002.

There are more than just ethical concerns involved. Reports by the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee and the UN Climate chief, and many other studies, have warned of a “carbon bubble” threatening the global stock market as well as the pension sector. As is the case with our physical climate, investments in dirty energy are putting us at uncertain risk where the scale of harm is unknown until it has happened.

These atrocities only pause on the rare occasions that a corporation is held accountable in court or shamed in mainstream media. And even then, in many of these cases the fossil fuel companies come out unscathed through financial settlement.

So what can we as students do against the powers that be, given that oil and gas companies comprise half of the top 10 Global 500 companies?

As students, it is important for us to realise that we possess a collective institutional voice. Student-led campaigns have convinced institutions including the University of the Arts London, Soas, the University of Glasgow, Warwick and Yale universities and many more to fully commit to divesting from fossil fuel companies, while Stanford University, the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh and many others have revised their investments because of student and staff pressure.

The focus is not limited to universities; cities such as Bristol, Paris and Berlin, as well as associations such as the British Medical Association and the Church of England, have taken steps forward. So far, fossil fuel divestment has reached more than $3.4 trillion (£2.76 trillion) globally.

Any financial excuse offered by universities wither when we inspect these pieces of information and the record of the many institutions that have already pledged to divest; the holdouts’ real reasons seem to lie in the ties between the universities and these corporations. For example, the chair of the UCL Council spent 10 years on the executive board of BP.

Even if we accept, for the sake of argument, that divestment presents a financial challenge for universities, we as students must insist that a university does not become better by becoming richer, but by listening to the voices of its students and ensuring a strong democratic union. After all, the essence of any university is its students, staff and academics, not its management. We should not let our universities become corporations, or let corporations use our universities in their greenwash. With campaigns such as the Rent Strike and Art Not Oil, such sentiments are echoed as a national concern.

Whether for financial, ecological or political reasons, the future will not be run on fossil fuels, but on renewable energy; it is certain that sooner or later the transition must be made.

The movement has already started, and the questions are:

  • Will our universities join as climate leaders or be the last to fall in line?
  • If even our universities are placing future generations in such a precarious situation, who can we trust to treat our future responsibly?

Research at UCL has found that the inconsistency between the university’s ethical policies and its unethical investment discourages students from exhibiting pro-environmental behaviours. As centres of knowledge, our educational institutions should be acting in accordance with their research with moral integrity, yet instead they are poor role models for their students.

Of course, we know that we are unlikely to really injure the fossil fuel industry by withdrawing our investment. Nonetheless, we are showing our concern: that we students – the next generation – care, and that we are watching, we are aware, and we see their misconduct.

There is no other way to inspire other institutions, organisations, companies and cities to do the same. Fossil Free is a global movement that, as Reverend Desmond Tutu pointed out, uses the same tactic that helped end apartheid. It is our actions that will liberate us from a system that turns each of us into unwilling contributors to climate change and human rights violations.

In our increasingly interconnected world, it is crucial to grasp that everyone and everything is now interdependent: harm caused to others drives damage back to oneself. This has ramifications not only for the one biosphere we all share, but for the principle of global equality we aim towards, which intrinsically fails if we do not follow the Golden Rule.

Julia Hashimoto Schaff is a second-year arts and sciences student at UCL and a member of the Fossil Free UCL campaign. 

Find out more about what Fossil Free UCL has done so far and what is still to come:

More information on the global Fossil Free movement here:

Resources for campaigners:

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