Oxford’s Divestment Shame

Maggie Wang takes Oxford to task for a failure to have divested as much as it should


There is a certain irony in studying, researching, or teaching at Oxford, one of the world’s leading institutions of higher education. This irony manifests itself especially in the field of climate science, which seeks to reclaim the future even as the university—albeit indirectly—seeks to destroy it. Nearly seven years ago, The Oxford Climate Justice Campaign published its first divestment petition, addressed to then-Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton, as part of the global Fossil Free campaign. The original petition received 2,670 signatories, and this number is still on the increase. Following the release of the Paradise Papers in November 2010, which implicated Oxford, Cambridge, and many of their constituent colleges in secret offshore investments such as oil-drilling, OCJC realized the need for a fresh anti-divestment petition. Whilst this petition has received only 270 signatures so far, support for divestment still appears to be a top priority on the student agenda, with student involvement in OCJC increasing vastly in 2019.

Aside from student-run OCJC, Oxford’s divestment campaigns include Oxford Alumni for Divestment and Oxford Academics for Divestment, both of which published petitions in 2014. In addition to these, in 2015 the university itself publicly commended its own lack of direct investments in coal and tar sands. In a statement issued by University Council, the university’s executive governing body, the university pledged to continue this practice—a tangible but minuscule step on the long road towards ethical investment. However, in the same statement, the university also proclaimed a need for “the continued inclusion, where financially prudent, of a broad range of energy investments within The Oxford Funds.”

Such a description is fitting for the university’s approach to many issues, including divestment. The university has responded positively to the majority of climate-related lobbying, including the Oxford Climate Society’s effort to diversify course curricula to include more material relating to climate change, as well as the Student Union’s effort to encourage the Careers Service to feature more climate-friendly jobs and internships. However, it has been slow to embrace the widespread calls for divestment. The university’s ethical investment policy goes back to 2008, when University Council resolved that, “if the activities of a company are, on ethical grounds, inconsistent with the educational and/or research objectives of the University, then the University may choose not to invest even though this may reduce returns.” In the university’s eyes, divestment clearly remains a “choice”, and one that, in a world of revived climate denial, they do not appear to be all too keen to make.

Numerous universities across the UK, including St. Andrews, King’s College London, and University College London, have pledged to divest fully from fossil fuels. Others, including Edinburgh, Durham, and Bristol have already succeeded in doing so. Nearly all of these commitments resulted from years of student protests and relentless petitioning. Yet, even though Oxford is vibrant with student activism, the university remains unconvinced that fossil fuel investments require the particular ethical scrutiny that they doubtless do. In the past two years, OCJC has unfurled protest banners during the Boat Race, installed protest art on the Radcliffe Camera, and disrupted fossil fuel companies’ recruitment events. Twenty-six JCRs and 15 MCRs have passed motions in support of divestment. Still, the list of colleges that have moved closer to divestment is far too short to consider such actions successful.

In early 2018, St. Hilda’s amended its investment policy to eliminate companies whose business activities are incompatible with the needs of an endangered environment. A year later and Wadham followed suit, agreeing to completely divest from coal and tar sands after prolonged discussions between college government and student leadership. Every now and then, one hears talk of other colleges pledging to divest, but there is little evidence that other colleges have actually acted on any pro-divestment urges. Nonetheless, many JCRs continue to push for new investment policies and negotiate with college governing bodies in the hope that they will, someday, succeed. But in this new decade, is “someday” good enough? As one of the world’s leading universities continues to invest heavily in fossil fuels with little criticism, shouldn’t we be necessitating, and indeed forcing, immediate action?

It is difficult not to forgive student climate activists at Oxford for believing that negotiation and the occasional protest is enough. After all, this is what has worked at other universities across the country. But, given the stereotype that Oxford is “different”—a bastion of the elite with a convoluted system of constituent colleges—the lack of momentum on divestment shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In order to ensure divestment across the board at Oxford, student campaigns must commit to more frequent, comprehensive action involving more students and a more clearly defined method for achieving their goals. Students must use existing channels, such as university and college committees, to their fullest capacity, and ensure that campaigns sustain momentum from year to year and term to term. They must actively lobby for divestment, keeping in mind specific demands, such as timelines for divesting from various types of fossil fuels and ways to hold the university and individual colleges accountable. It is not enough to simply declare support for divestment. In this new decade, it will be more important than ever before to combat the reckless, backward nature of the fossil fuel sector. It may not be prudent to abandon previous strategies entirely, but further action in this arena will occur most easily if pro-divestment groups unite around a more specific methodology for reaching their goals.