Cambridge students protest University’s investments

Chrystel Pepi 14 November 2017

At midday of the 14th November, the Zero Carbon Society rallied nearly a hundred Cambridge students to march against the central offices of the University, demanding an end to the institution’s involvement in “climate injustice.”

Working with Oxford University’s Climate Justice Campaign, Zero Carbon’s Press Officer, Angus Satow, led Cambridge’s campaign from Magdalene Bridge onto Bridge Street, passing by the Colleges of Trinity and St John’s, along to Market Square past the Senate House, and completed the protest at Old Schools, which houses the main administration of the institution: the Cambridge University’s Offices.

The protest comes as a response to last week's Paradise Papers leak, revealing how the Oxbridge, together with many of their constituting colleges, have committed “tens of millions of pounds” to “multibillion-dollar private equity partnerships” primarily based offshore. The Oxbridge endowments, which together amount to over 11 billion pounds in blocker corporations, appear clearly connected to fossil fuel investments. This “complex chain” traces its path into the Royal Dutch Shell’s financial ventures, intended for deep sea drilling and furthering oil exploration.

Deeply appalled by the leaked revelations, the student environmental organizations of both Oxford and Cambridge have united in their effort to demand greater “transparency,” “accountability” and “justice” for a more “genuine and ethical investment policy.”

In a co-written article for The Guardian, both groups voiced their resentment for the “scandal” of “tax avoidance,” but further lamented the “hypocrisy of universities” who, while lecturing on the “dangers of economic inequality, climate change, and the limits of burnable carbon,” are contemporarily “financing environmental destruction offshore.”

Determined to pressure their respective institutions to fully divest from fossil fuels, students across both universities have marched under the banner #ComeClean; as clarified by Alice Guillaume, the Campaigns Officer of Zero Carbon, who also spoke on behalf of Oxford’s Climate Justice: “Let’s envision two universities that finally end their legacies of exploring the planet with the intention of exploiting it. Let’s envision an Oxford and Cambridge that finally come clean.”

Cambridge University has attempted to justify its position, and that of its colleges, on the basis of holding the status of “charities.” A charitable status would not require the institution to pay taxes on investments. Angus Satow responded to this directly, saying “but what kind of charity avoids US taxes with dodgy offshore funds while pumping millions into the destruction of natural world and the global south?”

Angus continues, “We all know the history of this institution. A steeped in privilege, a finishing school of the British elite, legitimising projects of class domination, racial domination, and colonial domination. As the Paradise Papers have revealed, that continues to this day.”

Until now, public disclosure of the University’s management of financial endowments was rare. These recent leaks, however, contradict what had been the past assurance that Cambridge held only “minimal investments in fossil fuel companies.” The University instead seems to have been clearly ignoring the minds of students, and even that of the academic body. Angus repeated throughout the protest: “We’ve marched, we have protested, the University’s governing body region house has voted for divestment. The University College’s Union has voted for divestment. This is supposed to be a democratic university so why have they not divested?”

Angus heatedly stated in his speech: “this university profits from [fossil fuel company’s] destruction, from that legalized killing, they are not simply supplying demand, they are fighting till the death for the maintenance of their power. They abort US politicians, they reject climate notions at their shareholder meetings, they finance climate denial […] they lobby in the UK and the European Union to weaken climate regulations, and they must be stopped.”

Zero Carbon's campaigning began in 2015 when the CUSU council had voted “33 to 1 in favour of divestment.” The Zero Carbon council had petitioned 2,000 signatures in its first year, and ever since have acquisitioned an additional 1000. Moreover, in 2016 the Guardian reported how hundreds of Oxbridge academics had demanded the Universities to divest from fossil fuels and favour a more “morally sound investment policy that serves the needs of the future.” And recently this past October, a sizable group of academics under the leadership the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke out against carbon-based investments.

Certainly, the shockwave provoked by the Paradise Papers is set to instigate an even greater furore over the University’s investment transactions. As Angus assures, “We will be passing more policy at CUSU council. We will be having more discussions at region house. We want to make their lives uncomfortable.”

Alice Guillaume, also a member of Zero Carbon, commented when approached by TCS, that the rally was a "huge success". She added that investment in fossil fuels was a “deeply structural thing that Cambridge students care about.”

Student Hattie Hammans, who participated in the protest, remarked how it “was empowering to see so many people turn out on the day.” Noting that this is “not the end, we are going to be having a lot more Zero Carbon activity over the next few week as well.”

Thomas Dixon, also a Cambridge student participating in the march, states how the outcome of the rally “sends a good message that the people are involved, people care. People want to see change now.”

Approached by TCS following the end of the rally, Angus Satow further commented: “the message is clear now that there can be no more business as usual. Students and academics will not accept a lack of divestment from the University. And we need transparency, we need accountability.”