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. The university invests approximately £9 million in fossil fuel companies including Total, Shell and BHP Billiton. 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.
The refusal to divest has provoked a strong backlash from student campaigners. The move not to divest was passed on Monday at a meeting of the University Court – the highest decision-making body in the university – and goes against a recommendation made in April by the university's Central Management Group to divest from coal and tar sands.
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.”
65 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.”
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 Ian Main, 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 buy 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.”
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.
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.
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.