Campaigning for careers to go fossil free

Fergus Green is Senior Climate Campaigns Coordinator at People & Planet

Birkbeck, University of London has become the first higher education institution in the UK to end fossil fuel industry recruitment on campus.

Birkbeck’s careers service, Birkbeck Futures, is the first to introduce an “Ethical Careers Policy” – which explicitly excludes fossil fuel recruiters from holding recruitment events, promoting roles to students, and advertising or sponsorship opportunities.

This bold step creates an important precedent for climate action in higher education. Birkbeck has established a new standard for careers services meaningfully incorporating sustainability considerations into their operations – going beyond adding “green” companies to their portfolios and instead seriously grappling with those industries implicated in large-scale environmental injustice.

Whilst the idea of excluding industries from university careers services is not new – 20 UK universities currently exclude the tobacco industry – this is the first time that the fossil fuel industry has been explicitly excluded.

As if by magic

Whilst serious credit is owed to Birkbeck for being the first to implement this necessary policy change, the action did not come out of nowhere. This move must be placed in the context of a first victory for then rapidly growing Fossil Free Careers campaign, which was launched by student campaigning charity People & Planet in July 2021. The campaign has one simple demand – that higher education careers services end oil, gas, and mining recruitment.

There are now 36 campaign groups on campuses across the UK, and support for the campaign is building. Increasingly climate-conscious students are outraged at the idea that their own educational institutions are assisting the companies most responsible for fuelling the climate crisis recruit future generations of talent.

The climate crisis is already an important issue for many students, and for many more will become a defining feature of their lives in the decades to come – it is not hard to understand their legitimate concerns and why many are demanding better of their institutions.

So far, eight SUs (representing over 190,000 students) have voted to endorse the Fossil Free Careers campaign, meaning that they will boycott all recruitment events that feature oil, gas or mining industries, citing the social and environmental damage of these companies. In addition to lobbying their institutions on the issue, they will now deny fossil fuel industry recruiters access to SU spaces, and will not endorse or support any event that involves recruitment for the industry.

These local campaigns have been growing in strength, and were given a big boost in February 2022 when the UK’s largest body of students, the National Union of Students (NUS) officially endorsed the campaign.

Staff and student solidarity

But it is not just students, higher education staff – including staff working in careers services – are joining the Fossil Free Careers campaign and lending their support to the movement. In June 2022 the University and College Union (UCU) national congress had a Fossil Free Careers motion voted through by delegates from branches across the UK, meaning UCU will also be putting its weight behind the campaign.

Students and staff are united in their demands: it is time to end the recruitment pipeline from universities into the fossil fuel industry.

For a campaign only just entering its second year its progress has been impressive, clearly seizing on an underlying impatience in the student body over climate inaction in higher education institutions. With a first full win now under its belt that clearly demonstrates the demands of the Fossil Free Careers campaign are not only reasonable but enactable, we can expect to see the campaign spread further in the 2022-23 academic year. No campus should be an opposition-free arena for fossil fuel recruiters.

At Birkbeck, the Fossil Free Careers campaign mirrored this national picture. A group of students and staff built support, lobbied their institution and ultimately won the campaign. Their success will now be built upon by a UK-wide network united in the knowledge that excluding fossil fuel industry recruiters is a vital step towards climate justice for UK higher education institutions.

As more Fossil Free Careers campaigns move into the negotiation stage, we can expect this precedent set by Birkbeck to be swiftly followed, with institution after institution making similar commitments. We saw this pattern with fossil fuel divestment: the University of Glasgow, back in 2014, was the first university in Europe to drop its investments in fossil fuels. Once the precedent was set, students and staff kept up the pressure and there are now an incredible 99 UK higher education institutions divested from fossil fuels.

But divestment is only the first step. It is essential that higher education careers services urgently embed climate considerations and exclude fossil fuel companies from student and graduate recruitment opportunities. And if they do not, it is clear that the student movement will have something to say about it.

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