The Higher Education sector has received significant attention recently as having a major role to play in driving systemic change related to social and environmental issues. Access to research, issues around procurement and the general microeconomy Universities foster have all been identified as tools for environmental, social and economic sustainability. Divestment; the reduction or removal of investment from fossil fuel companies, has been a contentious but popular issue within this topic. Some have argued it is merely a tick box exercise under the spotlight, others have emphasised the impact and political statement of divestment in itself. The University of Cambridge has been the most recent to announce its divestment from fossil fuels in a historic move, but is divestment really the way forward for the sector?
The Moral Imperative
The first aspect of this debate is the moral and ethical imperative to divest from fossil fuel companies. The HE sector is seen as a deeply progressive territory, with many students who campaign on many issues. Extinction Rebellion started in this area, Greta Thurnberg’s image has mobilised millions of students globally, and students are a powerful driver at the moment in lobbying for environmental justice. There has always been a question around whether Universities are businesses or places to educate and build a better world, and as is often the case in sustainability, the former’s financial power is required to fund and drive the latter. However, because of wider social, political and economic reforms, it is increasingly making less sense to invest in fossil fuel industries due to increasing risks such as stranding of assets, increased regulation and public scrutiny. Many Universities in the UK have organised sustainability strategies, while most Student Unions now include sustainability in their values and remit.
The Financial Cost
With Covid19 and Brexit financially impacting Universities, it may come as a surprise for Universities to divest at this point, especially since a proportion of research funding and donations comes from high emission companies. However, new funding opportunities are cropping up as climate change becomes more of an interdisciplinary focus for research funders (Leal Filho 2018). Despite this, the NUS had previously reported in 2017 that universities who had divested did not report a major impact of funding granted from fossil fuel companies, at a time where over a third of UK Universities had made fossil free commitments. However, since some Universities, including Cambridge, use investment models which are managed by investment officers and managers rather than assets themselves, there is naturally going to be some restriction that will affect its ability to deliver on investment benchmarks. In a country that is so politically charged and climate movements becoming more intersectional and widespread, no University wants to be the one that is not delivering on key climate change progress. The Gen Z generation is increasingly being known for its dedication to climate activism and ethical consumerism, and the HE sector’s own business mode is currently under focus for the ethics of it’s business modell; students engaging in research and higher education are not going to invest their own futures, money and build debt with a University that isn’t making loud statements about its promise to the environment.
The Political Impact in HE
This leads nicely onto the last point: the political impact of divestment in the HE sector. As with all movements, performativity and using ethical or political movements to do minimal or surface level work. A good example of this is ‘rainbow capitalism’, where we see many corporations and businesses ‘come out’ in support of LGBT plus people, only to remove the flags on August 1st and fail to implement effective anti discrimination policies in their own workplaces. The past five years alone has seen a huge shift in sustainability priorities in higher education institutions, with the NUS playing a key accountability role in its various working groups, and Student Unions being key drivers of pressure. The University of Southampton recently announced their first sustainability strategy in October 2020, and the University of Cambridge are about to begin working on their second. There are now sustainability or ‘green’ officers scattered around different areas of universities, and enthusiastic staff who volunteer time to working groups within their own small puzzle pieces of the university.
This ties in quite closely with the social movements that are happening in higher education, more specifically around racial and gender equality. The Global South is arguably the most affected by the impacts of climate change and since there has always been a higher drive for international students to attend UK Universities (since they pay higher fees), there is a political power dynamic at play in how the HE sector and its Universities are contributing to these issues, even indirectly. We will continue to see a major political interaction between environmental movements, national political events like Brexit and the Pandemic, and student mobilization over the coming years as the HE sector continues to redefine itself.
In conclusion, there are many sides to the debate around divestment. Where it may be more effective for other big businesses and corporations to divest from fossil fuel companies, the evidence indicates that for the HE sector, it is a political and moral imperative more than it is in regards to the direct effect on reducing the use of fossil fuels and switching to sustainable ways of running. However, though the direct effect may be small, the indirect effects of divestment can improve equally important, acting as a statement to the world, country and the sector that a certain path needs to be created and walked when it comes to playing our respective parts for the planet. Student mobilisation is a massive part of this, and will continue to influence how Universities prioritise their strategies. Divestment is a statement as much as it is an action and it provides further space and platform to consider all ways HE can be effective in this space.