Universities divest amid protests

About half of UK universities with shares in fossil fuel companies have committed to selling their shares in these companies after sustained pressure from eco-conscious students who have occupied buildings, carrying out hunger strikes.

Seventy-eight of the UK’s 154 public universities have joined the divestment campaign, either divesting, or pledging to divest hundreds of millions from the fossil fuel industry.

In 2014, the University of Glasgow became the first to divest following student led protests, and similar campaigns have since taken place on more than 100 campuses across the UK.

In the past year Russell Group universities such as Exeter, Liverpool, York and University College London have also pledged to move their investments away from coal, oil and gas companies.

Almost all of the 24 Russell Group universities, which are traditionally considered to be the most prestigious in the country, have pledged to at least partially divest from fossil fuels following years of campaigning by students, staff and local communities.

Of the 24, only Imperial College London and the universities of Manchester and Birmingham are yet to join the divestment campaign.

In 2017, a PhD researcher at King’s College London went on hunger strike to demand the university stop investing in the fossil fuel industry. As awareness of the industry’s profiteering from the global climate crisis has grown, it has come under increasing pressure, with leading institutions facing calls to end their sponsorship deals and protesters targeting individual companies.

Private investors are also starting to look elsewhere as the future of the once safe fossil fuel industry looks increasingly bleak.

The Seventy-eight Universities that have cut ties with the fossil fuel industry, with the University of East Anglia among them, represent around £12.4bn of endowments that have now been divested across the fossil fuel sector, as part of what campaigners say is an accelerating process of delegitimisation of the industry.

Student protesters have also called into question their universities’ banking practices, as many still use banks with links to the fossil fuel industry, such as Barclays.

The move towards divestment in higher education has been boosted by last year’s climate strikes that were inspired by teenage activist Greta Thunberg, and involved hundreds of thousands of students.

Speaking with UEA Environmental Science student Laura Taylor about this, she said: “I think it’s brilliant, but it needs to go further and quicker. All universities need to listen to their students and their academics when considering the real reasons they want to hold onto these investments in favour of divesting quickly. Universities such as UEA are teaching students about the climate crisis and by not following the teaching of their own academics, universities risk looking unwise to their students, staff and the public.”


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Ted Tuthill-Jones

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January 2022
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