May 12, 2015

Edinburgh University bows to fossil fuel industry lobby, refuses to divest

Edinburgh, UK — Today, the University of Edinburgh ignored calls from students, staff and alumni to divest from fossil fuel companies, sparking accusations of a conflict of interests within the university from students.

The University of Edinburgh has the third largest university endowment in the UK, after Oxford and Cambridge, totalling £291 million. It invests approximately £9 million in fossil fuel companies including Total, Shell and BHP Billiton.

The decision was passed on Monday at a meeting of the University Court – the highest decision-making body in the university. [1] The refusal to divest has provoked a strong backlash from student campaigners.

Kirsty Haigh, student campaigner with Edinburgh People & Planet, said: “Despite the university’s public consultation showing overwhelming support for fossil fuel divestment, the university has put money before climate science. Heads of the School of Engineering, in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry, have been scaremongering throughout the process. Departments funded by the industry were over-represented on the investment advisory committee, whilst some schools had no representation whatsoever. 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,” she added.

Sixty-five students in the School of Engineering have already signed an open letter to the Head of the School, Prof. Hugh McCann, 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.” [3]

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, whilst 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.

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.

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 both the Scotland and UK 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.

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.

In the UK, the University of Glasgow, the University of Bedfordshire, and the University of London SOAS have all committed to divest, with an international total of 28 universities moving their money out of fossil fuels. 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 220 institutions have now made commitments to fossil fuel divestment, including faith organisations, pension funds, philanthropic foundations and local authorities.


Correction: Based on leaked information from within the university’s Central Management Group that was inaccurate, the press release previously mentioned that the University of Edinburgh’s decision goes against recommendations from the Central Management Group.




Interviews and photos available from Edinburgh students via Miriam Wilson, Fossil Free Campaign Coordinator, People & Planet
Phone: +44 1865 264 180

Spokesperson: Kirsty Haigh, Edinburgh student campaigner and NUS Scotland VP Communities
Phone: +44 7950 671772


[1] University of Edinburgh statement:

[2] Open letter to School of Engineering by Engineering Students:


Bill McKibben, co-founder said: “It’s sad that the divestment battle at Edinburgh must go on into the future–with time for action on climate change so short we need leaders, not laggards. But spirited campaigners will keep making the case, and the temperature will keep rising, and eventually this university will join so many others in doing the right thing.”

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.”

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.”

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.”
Notes to editor

People & Planet – Britain’s largest student network campaigning on environmental justice and human rights coordinates the UK university fossil fuel divestment movement.

UK universities invest an estimated £5.2 billion annually in the fossil fuel industry (Knowledge and Power, 2013). See a full list of all the institutions that have divested.

Information on the growth of the divestment movement can be found in Measuring the Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement (2014) by Arabella Advisors.

More information on the Edinburgh University campaign so far can be found at their website.