Fossil Fuels and the Corporate Takeover of Higher Education

A series of recent revelations have exposed the close ties between the fossil fuel industry and the higher education sector.

A series of recent revelations have exposed the close ties between the fossil fuel industry and the higher education sector. A Guardian report earlier this month revealed that John Shakeshaft and Simon Redfern, members of Cambridge University’s specially mandated Divestment Working Group (DWG), were aware of two multi-million pound donations offered to the institution whilst advising on divestment.

Both failed to declare this as a conflict of interest, doing so with the full knowledge of Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope. Both the working group itself (created after staff passed a democratic grace in 2017 expressing support for divestment), and its ultimate decision to reject campaigners’ demands for full divestment, have thus been revealed as no more than a sham.

These revelations highlight the extent to which the revolving door between fossil fuel companies and University management influenced the decision to reject full divestment. It is merely the latest and most highly publicised example of well-established fossil-fuel connections nurtured by senior figures within the UK higher education sector.

Fossil fuel companies have a long history of close ties with elite educational institutions like Cambridge, in particular BP, which in 2000 funded the creation of the Cambridge BP Institute (a research centre supporting the study of ‘oil recovery’, and aiming to maximise extraction of the harmful pollutant it familiarly nicknames ‘the black stuff’).

Sadly, Cambridge is far from unique in maintaining these ties. A 2013 People and Planet report revealed that the presence of oil executives on university committees is an alarmingly common phenomenon. In an especially egregious case, BP’s Chief Executive of Refining and Marketing, Iain Conn, is a long-standing member of the Council of Imperial College and Chairman of the Imperial College Business School’s Advisory Board.

Other UK universities are known to accept fossil-fuel sponsorship of high-profile academic posts (such as the ‘BP Professor of Information Engineering’ and ‘BP Professor of Economics’ at the University of Oxford), as well as offers of support for specific courses or programmes of study: in an especially notorious example, high-risk oil company Cairn Energy publicly funds the ‘Advanced Sequence Stratigraphy’ short course at Glasgow University.

Even more concerningly, large numbers of higher educational institutions are prepared to extend a welcoming hand even to those fossil fuel reps deeply mired in scandal. Thus, no less a person than Tony Hayward (the former BP CEO forced into retirement by the Deepwater Horizon spill) was awarded honours from Aston University, the University of Birmingham and Robert Gordon University.

The widespread and established nature of such relations is unsurprising, given their utility to the fossil fuel industry. In partnering with educational institutions of international renown – which increasingly seek to present themselves as a marketable global “brand” – companies such as BP are able to legitimise their deleterious actions. Quite literally capitalising on the elite reputation of institutions such as Cambridge, the world’s great polluters are able to enter the public consciousness as progressive innovators and investors in the country’s youth.

As Cairn Energy has so lucidly and honestly expressed it, university partnerships offer an easy opportunity to demonstrate “positive social impact”. The dark irony of this framing need hardly be stated; it is exactly these dirty corporations which pose the greatest risk to the health, security and happiness of the next generation.

One newly released report makes clear that, in an unlikely best case scenario (in which carbon emissions are rapidly reduced, limiting global warming to 1.5C), more than a third of the Himalayan ice cap is already fated to disappear. This environmental cataclysm will affect two billion people, amongst them deeply vulnerable, isolated and impoverished communities. In this context, it seems that fossil fuel companies cannot credibly claim to have a role in a livable future.

In allowing this narrative to be spun, it is clear that universities such as Cambridge are complicit in a concerted programme of greenwashing, thus impeding the public accountability and scrutiny of major polluters. So-called “leaders” in the higher education sector can therefore be seen to imperil the futures of the very groups (students, the young) whose interests and wellbeing they are meant to represent and promote.

Rightly recognised as an unacceptable conflict of interest, universities’ social and ethical irresponsibility has increasingly come under fire from protestors in a series of dramatic campaigns across the UK. Last academic year witnessed the most intense period of protest in the higher education sector since 2010. In Cambridge, students and staff repeatedly expressed a popular will for divestment, through the combined media of open letters, mass rallies, and forceful campaigns of direct action.

In June this culminated in a six-day hunger strike, which was quickly followed by a week-long student occupation of the University’s financial and administrative centre, Greenwich House. These protests erupted just months after mass student mobilisation in support of striking workers participating in the national UCU-led strikes. Neither the pro-divestment campaign nor the strikes successfully delivered on the original demands of the protestors, however.

These ongoing disputes highlight how the power structures intrinsic to the higher education sector allow university management to marginalise the popular voices of students and staff, choosing to give primacy to the representatives of corporate interests. Events in Cambridge cannot be taken in isolation, and must instead be understood as symptomatic of a generalised trend toward marketisation in the higher education sector.

The beneficiaries of universities’ collusion with polluting corporations constitute a small, intensely privileged group. They are part of a wider management elite which has, in recent years, continued to profit even whilst students see tuition fees rise and the average university staff member sees their financial security thrown into doubt. This power and privilege of this elite has - thus far - rendered it impervious to the criticisms of protestors.

It is clear that protests in the higher education sector over the previous year have been united in their opposition to marketisation, and to a management elite which can afford to ignore student and staff demands. In recognising that these protests have a common origin, we may be able to discern new, more effective tactics for future mobilisation. In our continued efforts to tackle the growing trend towards for-profit higher education, student and staff solidarity is both logical and essential.

The rallying cry of last year’s strikes in Cambridge - “Students and workers unite and fight!” - must become the reality of political organising in the higher education sector.


Beth Bhargava

Beth Bhargava is a second year undergraduate and student activist at the University of Cambridge.