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Academics demand fossil fuel divestment

ByGavin Dewar

Mar 10, 2015

Fifty-five academics and staff at the University of Edinburgh signed and delivered a letter to Principal Timothy O’Shea demanding “a simple and necessary action: divestment from fossil fuels” on Monday.

Divestment campaigners People and Planet and EUSA Vice President Services (VPS) Tasha Boardman were present alongside representatives from the academic community as the letter was handed over to Senior Vice Principal Charlie Jeffery.

The letter preceded the penultimate meeting of the university’s Fossil Fuel Review Group.

The University of Edinburgh has the third largest endowment fund in the UK, at £230 million. The letter criticised the university’s directing of these funds to oil companies like BP and Shell.

This is the latest action directed towards the university as a part of the global Fossil Free movement, which was founded in 2012 and claims to be “the fastest-growing divestment movement in history.”

Fossil Free celebrated victories when the University of Glasgow became the first university in Europe to divestment last October, followed in January by the University of Bedfordshire and the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

Monday’s letter stated: “We are proud of being part of a University which aspires ‘to make world-leading contributions to understanding and addressing global challenges’. We are calling on the University to take action to fulfil these objectives: to divest from fossil fuels and the arms trade.”

It continued: “While we use our endowment fund to support the fossil fuel industry, we bear responsibility for the environmental damage and social injustice that result from it. Similarly, by investing in arms companies we are fuelling conflict, poverty and human rights abuses.”

VPS Boardman told The Student: “I think the letter reiterates the message and the ask put forward by the student campaign and demonstrates that there is also a wide range of academic interest calling for divestment. The letter was received positively by the Fossil Fuel Review Group as was the petition and the brief from People and Planet.”

The Student questioned Boardman over whether fossil fuel divestment would affect university funding and the student experience: “I think it is important to note that the Review Group has assessed a wide range of risks throughout this process including academic freedom, education and research.

“The University has a very wide range of investments and a heavy investment portfolio therefore divesting from one asset means there is money to invest in another, therefore divesting from fossil fuels doesn’t directly mean financial loss.

“However, if a divestment decision was taken and if that consequently led to a loss in returns it would be a decision taken by the University to take a principled stance because it aligns with the values of the University and the direction of travel the university wants to take.”

One signatory of the letter, Reverend Ali Newell, an Associate Chaplain at the university, confirmed that her signature was a personal decision and that “we do not have a Chaplaincy position on fossil fuels.”

She continued, however: “The flow of money that may dry up in the University [after divestment] needs to be seen alongside looking into the future taking on board the seriousness of the issues facing our planet regarding climate change.”

Doctor Tom Webster, another signatory, reflected on the reactions to the letter in a written response to The Student: “Some of the comments in the press coverage were interesting. The more snide remarks suggested that the signatures came from the humanities, ‘useless’ subjects with nothing to lose from the divestment.”

Webster continued: “Apart from a few political junkies within History, myself included, the main response is that divestment is a good idea, thoroughly laudable, but accepted in a passive manner rather than actually doing anything about it.”

Webster then considered the possible results of the letter: “It is difficult at this stage to judge what exact impact it will have. It perhaps gains from Glasgow being ahead of Edinburgh on this and the university usually responds after things get drawn to the attention of the wider public.

“[Unions] had been drawing their attention to the dubious practices of zero hours contracts, employment instability and under-estimating the hours of prep and feedback that [postgrad] tutors do; when it appeared in the papers they responded with a ‘shock/horror’ position of feigned ignorance and desire to set things to right.

“Effectively, the bottom line is that if such stances aren’t taken, they will not divest; if they are taken then it moves onto the agenda at the very least.”

Moving on to whether divestment will affect education standards at Edinburgh, Webster asked:

“How far does [the money currently gained from the investment] go towards providing better staff/student ratios, better teaching, provision of teaching aides like resources and the library, and how much of it goes to set up research institutes with no consequences for front line provision of education and more focus on the international reputation of the university as a whole?”

Outgoing Rector Peter McColl said : “This letter shows the strength of staff feeling on the issue of divestment.”

He then said: “We know that the University of Edinburgh has lost millions of pounds through its investments in fossil fuels over the past nine months. That is likely to continue as it becomes clear fossil fuel companies have over-declared their assets, and so are over-valued.”

Speaking at Principal’s Question Time in February, Principal O’Shea was asked about fossil fuels and insisted that: “This is not a race of which university is first. The issue on any divestment issue is to analyse it properly by looking at it from the various points of views, and then coming up with an approach which makes sense to as large a part of the University community as possible.

“So I think we are doing things completely appropriately and responsibly at Edinburgh.”

In response to the divestment letter, a university spokesperson told The Student: “We are exploring the issue in depth. A report with options that the University might pursue will be discussed at a meeting next month.”

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