Sheffield University's 'divestment betrayal'

| 11th March 2019
People & Planet research shows University of Sheffield has not made good on its promise to divest from all fossil fuels. We can't let them get away with it.

University of Sheffield's narrowing of their divestment pledge to thermal coal & tar sands is a gross re-writing of history.

The University of Sheffield has failed to make good on its promise to divest all fossil fuels, research by student activist network People & Planet has revealed.

This was reported by student newspaper Forge Press, exposing the university's continued investments in oil & gas companies Shell. As of June 2018, those investments were worth over £610,000 in total.

Speaking to Forge Press, I accused the University of betraying the thousands of staff and students who supported for divestment as part of People & Planet Sheffield's campaign between 2013 and 2015.

Clear betrayal

The University has responded, claiming that their Ethical Investment Advisory Group's guidelines include cutting ties only with companies with more than “10 percent of their turnover from the extraction of thermal coal and oil from tar sands,” instead of all fossil fuel companies.

I coordinated People & Planet Sheffield's divestment campaign from Spring 2015 through to the University's commitment in November 2015. Their narrowing of the pledge to thermal coal and tar sands is a gross re-writing of history.

It is true that both the vice-chancellor and chief financial officer have changed personnel since the divestment commitment in 2015. This is just a message lost in translation over time. But I find that hard to believe.

The university was proud of its commitment when it made it and has played it up as an example of its commitment to climate action ever since. This appears to be a more cynical attempt to dine out on the reputational benefits of divestment without paying the bill.

As experienced student campaigners, we understand that this country's higher education institutions are hardly democratic.

Political space

However, this is an era where the likes of University of Sheffield are cultivating brands of social responsibility and sustainability. In this context, Sheffield's failure to follow through on their divestment commitment leaves a particularly sour taste.

During the campaign, student campaigners' relationship with university management felt healthy and productive. We kept up the pressure while collaborating to build consensus around our call for divestment across all constituencies of staff and students on campus.

This culminated in a public debate and vote where 91 percent of attendees supported divestment. Sheffield's continued investment in oil and gas companies is certainly betrayal.

The UK's Fossil Free campaign for universities to divest was launched six years ago in 2013. In that time 72 UK universities, four Oxbridge colleges and two Irish universities have made some kind of divestment commitment - representing over £12 billion of investments. These constitute over seven percent of all divestments by institutions globally.

Higher education in the UK and Ireland has led the global Fossil Free movement. They have created the political space for much larger divestments like the country of Ireland. But they fall behind in implementing their own.

Divestment movement

Like Sheffield, many UK universities continue to invest in fossil fuel companies despite promises to divest. One such is University of Glasgow which became the first university to divest in Europe in October 2014.

These universities are taking advantage of the transience of student politics: a group who started and won a campaign in 2013-14 are unlikely to be on campus to hold management to account for their decision five years later.

That's why national organisations like People & Planet which stick around and hold institutional memory are so important for our movement.

Why does this failure to follow through on divestment matter though? The primary purpose of divestment is to revoke the fossil fuel industry's social license to operate through prominent acts of disassociation by reputable public institutions. The aim was never to bankrupt fossil capital through divestment.

This is true, but we should certainly still push for institutions to make good on their divestment pledges. As the climate movement strengthens its political ambitions and escalates its tactics, its essential that a strong divestment movement continues to wage an ideological war against the fossil fuel industry.

Betray students

We need divestments to keep rolling to maintain the pressure on the fossil fuel industry's historically low popularity.

If we let nominally divested institutions off the hook then others may be discouraged to make the commitment at all. If we slip into complacency then the vast wealth of fossil capital will inevitably be deployed to rehabilitate the perceived legitimacy of this faltering industry.

This Spring People & Planet will release in full its research exposing universities which have betrayed their divestment commitments.

When this information is public, staff and students must challenge the management of their institutions to follow through. This will begin in Sheffield in the coming weeks. Universities thought they could betray students and get away with it. They were sorely wrong.

This Author

Chris Saltmarsh manages People & Planet's university divestment campaigns as co-director: climate change. He tweets at @chris_saltmarsh.

Right of Reply 

Professor Koen Lamberts, President and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sheffield, said: "I know that there has been confusion and uncertainty around the our position on ethical investments. Let me be clear straight away and tell you that the University of Sheffield has already been divesting from fossil fuel companies and is committed to completing this.

We now only hold one investment in a company related to fossil fuels, Royal Dutch Shell. This company has stated a commitment to developing cleaner energy sources, but we are still continuing work to remove this investment from our portfolio. The work to do this is underway, and our Students’ Union officers are working closely with our Finance Committee to move it forward. I will be keeping students updated about the progress of this work.  

It is also important for me to say that, since I joined the University of Sheffield in November, I have seen a lot of positive work around ethical investments and sustainability more generally.  We now have an endowment investment policy that has responded to a number of student concerns around areas such as human rights, animal testing, arms, tobacco and environmental damage. The University is also developing an ambitious strategy around sustainability, which is due to be launched in the Autumn. Our new Sustainability Strategy will cover areas such as climate action, quality education, clean and affordable energy and responsible consumption and production. This strategy will be the result of long standing contributions from our active student and staff groups, who are also key to making it work.

The University of Sheffield is full of passionate people, both students and staff, who are dedicated to making evidence based change - on and off campus. I am pleased that we have such an active student and alumni group that, and I look forward to working for and with them as we take this work forward."​​​​​​​

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