Divestment commitments are fine – but what about the policy?

Just a third of universities who have pledged to divest from fossil fuels have actually enshrined the commitment in policy.

That’s a key finding in People & Planet’s University League 2019 – we rank 154 publicly funded universities by their ethical and environmental performance, including one section focusing on the ethics of universities’ investments.

The league is based on information publicly available on university websites to promote transparency between the institution and staff, students and the public. The Ethical Investment and Banking section hinges on the institution’s ethical investment policy (if indeed they have one). If the policy is in date and publicly available, further marks are awarded for embedding student representation and listing all investments annually.

The section also includes marks for exclusion and inclusion of specific sectors in investment portfolios. Institutions are rewarded for excluding fossil fuels companies as well as arms. If fossil fuels are excluded, universities are further rewarded for committing to invest in either low-carbon/ renewable companies and funds, or directly fund renewable projects on campus or community-owned initiatives.

Divestment success

Since its inception, the University League has played a significant role in ensuring that the divestment movement at UK universities is among the most successful in the world. Almost half of UK universities have a divestment commitment of some kind – this might be divesting from all fossil fuels or just coal and tar sands. Compared to other countries’ HE sectors, only the Marshall Islands have a proportionately greater success rate with 100% of their one university divested. UK and Irish HE institutions (including oxbridge colleges) collectively account for over 8% of all institutional divestments globally.

Of the 76 universities with some kind of divestment commitment, 22 have been uncovered thanks to University League research in the past. This happens when researchers find divestment policy that has previously been unannounced.

The divestment movement has recently enjoyed a number of high-profile victories. Ireland became the first country to divest. New York City, Paris and London have all pledged to divest with NYC saying they would sue big oil companies in the same announcement.

As one of the global leaders on divestment, campaigners at UK universities can be sure that we have contributed to laying the vital building blocks for mainstreaming the marginalisation of fossil fuels worldwide. Forging a new common sense around the criminality of fossil fuel companies on campuses up and down the country, we have educated a generation of students as to the root causes of climate breakdown.

Policy failings

The problem is that of the UK’s 76 divested universities, only 19 were found to have the commitment included in an in-date ethical investment policy. Where commitments have not been enshrined in policy, they are usually still verifiable through news releases on university websites or reports in the press.

Cardiff University and Kings College London are among the universities which do include their commitment in ethical investment policy. University of Glasgow and Durham University have been high-profile divestment commitments but are included in those which have failed to make the pledge policy.

The University of Durham has no ethical investment policy available online – although they published details of the decision to divest by the University’s governing Council in March 2018. And at the time of marking, University of Glasgow’s only publicly available ethical investment policy was from 2009 and did not include mention of excluding fossil fuels.

There are numerous reasons a university may neglect to update their ethical investment policy to include a divestment commitment. Institutions are often pressured to divest by student campaigners. Some know that students are a transient population. If they can wait it out a few years and conveniently ignore previous decisions there is often nobody around to remember the original campaign. On the other hand, it may just be that the bureaucracy of changing a policy is more effort than it seems worth if the commitment is public already.

Accountability

This is the sticking point though. It is precisely the hoops you have to jump through to change policy that explain the value of creating it. Without policy, an institution can change its mind and brush a commitment under the rug, or sincerely forget or deprioritise it as staff turnover. With policy, divestment is a commitment regularly reported on at high level. If the institution changes its mind, there is accountability and formal process in seeking to revise the policy.

Holding institutions to account on their divestment commitments through an ethical investment policy is an important part of divestment campaigning. Fossil fuel companies’ reputations have taken a big hit since universities started excluding them in 2014. But the pressure needs to stay on. Institutions must follow through by actually moving their money. If they don’t, fossil fuel companies may figure our what’s going on and push back.

Non-divested institutions may look on and refuse to divest if the act appears performative. Without those future divestments, the fossil fuel industry will have the space to claw back a positive public image. The People & Planet University League is one effective method of continuing to discover and promote divestments while defending the integrity of the tactic.

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