by Laura Potts

Each university is different from one another. Moreover, they are very different from most other institutions of all types. On one hand they are educational institutions; on the other they are businesses. As businesses they make investments, though this is not something we would usually think of as a priority of educators. It is worth taking the time to investigate what your university is truly involved with and if their investments are ethical, not only for moral peace of mind but also to have a clearer idea of what your tuition fees are being put toward.

Universities create innovation, usually through venture capital investment that encourages local and economic growth. However, many universities have been known to invest in less than sustainable industries, including the fossil fuel industry. In some cases this has been taken to worryingly extreme lengths – for example, energy giant Shell has bought influence over the curriculum in a major Dutch university as a result of large scale investment. As groups such as People & Planet have exposed, “UK universities and colleges support the fossil fuel industry directly through their research, their £5.2bn investments in fossil fuel companies and their partnerships with some of the worst-offending companies in the world like ExxonMobil, BP and Shell.” The fossil fuel industry is the driving force of environmental destruction and a disastrous future for the human species. This doesn’t exactly go hand in hand with universities’ supposed aim of educating the minds of tomorrow. If we are to make progress against these contradictions, we need to bring these involvements out into the open.

Every university should be made to answer this challenge

With this in mind, I looked into how our local universities’ invest their money. Norwich University of the Arts does not invest in fossil fuels; however, it has not made a commitment not to invest in future industry. NUA does not fund research into conventional fuel energy, but it hasn’t funded renewable energy research since 2001. This could be seen as a neutral stance, but equally you could argue that NUA could do more to actively opt-in to a sustainable future. The larger University of East Anglia, by contrast, has a total of £288,964 invested in the fossil fuel industry, specifically in Shell, BP and Rio Tinto. The university also invests in fossil fuel research to the tune of £131,253. However, the University has invested £2,737,787 into funding renewables research since 2001. Although this investment does not erase the damage done by UEA’s dirtier decisions, it does offer hope that the institution could build a fully responsible and sustainable investment portfolio in the future.

It is vital that students show they are not willing to support these investment decisions – and many are. Some have taken powerful personal action to protest this funding of destruction. Roger Hallam, PhD researcher, went on hunger strike to protest King’s College London’s fossil fuel investments. As he put it, “Someone somewhere has to make a stand. We’re absolutely, objectively, scientifically in a climate emergency.” This level of care and strength is admirable, and made for a powerful call for attention to the issue and for united action. Hallam was quickly joined by other students to protest outside KCL and call for divestment. These students directly challenged their institution regarding the morality of their investment. Every university should be made to answer this challenge.

Fossil Free 07.11.15

Students stage an occupation to protest UEA’s investment in fossil fuels, 2015. Credit: Fossil Free UEA

Universities offer amazing potential to create an environment that expands the minds of young generations and produces groundbreaking research. It would be fitting for those same institutions to pave the way for change on climate and energy, perhaps the most important policy area of our time. Happily, many are doing just that – currently around a quarter of UK universities are committed to divestment (49 in total). But that leaves far too many that have yet to find the courage to do the right thing. This reluctance is partly rooted in the fact that universities are run as businesses, and therefore ethical consideration of where money flows to and from is less important to them than being sure it will flow. There is a strong case that universities would function better as non-profit institutions. Without the distraction of the profit motive, they would be more able to focus on and achieve their aims of creating an inspiring learning environment while acting as responsible members of the global community. And students would not have to face being herded through a system weighted by dodgy investments and altered curricula.

That ideal situation is a long way off, however. In the mean time researching your own university’s investments and initiatives is a good way to involve yourself in the pressing environmental matters of our time, and make a real difference. As a member of a university community, your voice counts, and you can help others speak up to join the united force against unethical investment. Collectively, we can make sure it becomes a thing of the past, and progressive, positive investment takes its place.

Featured image credit: George Hodan

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