Students protest yesterday in Edinburgh, over anticipated partial divestment. But the university has refused all divestment so far.

Students protest yesterday in Edinburgh, over anticipated partial divestment. But the university has refused all divestment so far.

The University of Edinburgh​ just bowed to pressure from fossil fuel industry and refused to divest, following a 3 year campaign by its students. The University of Edinburgh has the third largest university endowment in the UK, after Oxford and Cambridge, totalling £291 million, with approximately £9 million in fossil fuel companies including BP, Shell and BHP Billiton.

The decision has provoked a strong backlash from student campaigners against the University Court’s decision. The move goes against a recommendation made in April by the university’s Central Management Group that the university should divest from the most destructive fossil fuel companies like coal and tar sands.

Kirsty Haigh, student campaigner with Edinburgh People & Planet, said:

“Despite the overwhelming support for fossil fuel divestment in a public consultation, the University have proved they are in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry. Climate change is the most urgent threat the world is facing, and today’s announcement tells us the university is not taking it seriously enough. For the past three years every piece of evidence we’ve provided, and their own consultation, proved that students, staff and alumni want full divestment. Our University claims to be a leader in sustainability but today have clearly proved this is not the case.”

73 students and staff in the School of Engineering have already signed an open letter to the head of the school, angered by his public opposition to the fossil fuel divestment campaign. Their letter stated:

“The School of Engineering has and will continue to have a pivotal role in the university’s future. It is after all engineers who will be on the frontlines of the transition to a low carbon society. By basing its argument against divestment on engineering students’ chances of employment in one dead-end industry, the school appears to be failing to prepare its students for careers in the rapidly changing energy markets of the 21st century, whilst neglecting the faculty’s broader responsibility to the student body as a whole. As a consequence, they gamble employment against our common future.”

Information obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests have revealed that the Geosciences Department has received funding from a range of fossil fuel companies over the past 10 years including BP, Shell and ConocoPhillips, including grants and gifts of money from Total and Cairn Energy. An FOI request from December 2013 revealed that 37 staff members in the Geosciences Department were in direct correspondence with fossil fuel company representatives. Andy Curtis, the school representative on the Fossil Fuel Advisory Committee which made recommendations to the University Court on fossil fuel divestment, is the ex-Total chair for mathematical geoscience.

Campaigners believe that the fear of loosing research funding was overstated at Glasgow University and that false impression was created by a handful of Glasgow academics on the effect their decision to become the first university in Europe to divest from fossil fuels in October 2014.

Luke Evens, Environmental Officer of Glasgow University Student’s Representative Council, said:

 “Following Glasgow University’s decision to divest in October 2014, we have since learned that the decision has not affected any funding to the university, in particular to the Engineering Department. Despite criticism from a small number of personally invested academics, the positive response across all colleges, including science and engineering, was overwhelmingly encouraging. We are proud that the academic community at Glasgow has united to tackle the threat of climate change, and we call on Edinburgh University to do the same.”

The Fossil Free campaign at Edinburgh has gathered widespread support from across the community, with backing from over 50 university academics and the Edinburgh University Students Association. The public consultation run by the university showed overwhelming support for divestment from the university community and thousands of students have signed up to the campaign.

John Brookes, student campaigner and Masters of Nationalism Studies said:

“The university has cited academic freedom as one of its main reasons for not divesting. How can a university which is funded by private companies promote freedom of debate and expression? The close ties between the School of Engineering and the fossil fuel industry undermines all the climate and renewables research that the university is doing.”

Miriam Wilson, Fossil Free Campaign Coordinator at People & Planet, said:
“By continuing to invest in fossil fuels, the University of Edinburgh is putting short-term gains ahead of the long-term interests of its students and the wider world, and undermining its image as a forward-thinking institution which is leading in climate change research. It is untenable for a university to bankroll an industry which is driving the destruction of its students’ future.”

Fossil Free is a global movement to push universities and other public institutions to divest from the 200 fossil fuel companies that hold the vast majority of the world’s oil, coal and gas reserves. The campaign reflects a growing concern among British students about the dangers of climate change and the investment risks associated with the so-called carbon bubble which threatens to strand the £5.2 billion UK universities collectively invest in fossil fuels; an investment in fossil fuels of £2,083 for every student in the UK.

Over the past 18 months, the People & Planet student network have launched over 60 Fossil Free campaigns across the UK and gained the support of the National Union of Students and over 32,000 individual students. Decisions on fossil fuel divestment are now expected from Oxford University, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Manchester University and Warwick University over the coming weeks and months.

Friends of the Earth Scotland finance campaigner Ric Lander said:

“The University has missed a clear opportunity to take a moral lead on tackling climate change and stand up for environmental justice. The University appears content to have its money invested in the world’s most polluting companies including Shell, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto. These companies are oil drilling in the Arctic and mining coal in virgin rainforest. Any investment policy which continues to allow investment in such irresponsible companies is not fit for purpose.”

In the US, Syracuse University and the New School in New York are divesting from fossil fuels, whilst Stanford is divesting from coal. More than 230 institutions have now made commitments to fossil fuel divestment, including faith organisations, pension funds, philanthropic foundations and local authorities.