University reassures staff and students over divestment fears

Keir Watt & Tom Kelly
Writer & Editor

The University of Glasgow released a statement in November reassuring staff and students that divestment would not affect commitments to sustaining and developing research.

The release, which can be found on the University of Glasgow website states: “At a time when it has stated its intention to reduce over time its endowment investment in fossil fuels, the University of Glasgow is committed to sustaining and developing its vibrant range of teaching and research activities in energy science and engineering, including both fossil fuels and renewables”

The statement then reiterates the commitment of the University towards programmes of study which give students: “Skills which are essential not only in the renewables sector, but also in the fossil fuels industry, including geological exploration and offshore surveying.”

This comes in response to five senior academics at the University who wrote a letter to the Guardian newspaper in October, highlighting concerns that divestment could affect research into the de-carbonisation of energy. It would appear the University intends to ensure divestment has no effect on staff or students.

A report from the Glasgow University Secretary of Court, contained in Court minutes from 25 June 2014, states the Investment Advisory Committee IAC was of the opinion divestment would likely lead to a small reduction in portfolio returns. Although investments in the fossil fuel industry represent only a small percentage of the portfolio, (with one broker placing just 5% of it’s portfolio in the industry) divestment was considered to be a moderate risk in the report, due to these investments having high returns and being less risky than other investments.

The Secretary of Court’s report also highlights that concerns were raised about negative impacts on the funding of scholarships, which according to one member was vitally reliant on maximum returns from investments. The University does receive donations and research funding from fossil fuel companies, but the University Court found these to be too small to outweigh the ethical case for divesting.

When compared, the court report and the statement do not seem entirely concurrent. As of yet, no strategy has been revealed as to how the University will combat the potential impact on the funding of scholarships.

There have been some suggestions many of the University’s investment’s could be called into question under the Socially Responsible Investment Policy.  This policy dictates how investments should be made and was cited by the Court as one of the main reasons for divestment. Some of the University’s other investments include gaming companies Ladbrokes and William Hill.

The Glasgow Guardian asked David Newall, Secretary to the Court for a comment on the University’s divestment and it’s potential impacts and Newall stated: “The University does have a very clear socially responsible policy on investment and we regularly review all of our investments.” He also sought to reassure students and staff further on potential impacts “We do not believe there will be any adverse impact on the important and world leading research that we carry out in these fields as a result of our investment decisions.”

However, Newall did comment that: “The University’s investment advisory committee will now commission expert opinion into the impact that divesting from fossil fuels may have. This report will be presented to the University Court in February 2015.”

Newall also reiterated some of the University’s statement, commenting: “We have a strong commitment to a wide range of teaching and research activities in energy science and engineering, including both fossil fuels and renewables.”

Paul Younger, Rankine Chair of Engineering and Professor of Energy Engineering, was among the senior academic staff at Glasgow to come out against the divestment. Youngerspoke to the the Glasgow Guardian about the issue.

Guardian: Is research at the university into fields such as renewable energy, carbon capture and responsible fossil fuel usage dependent upon or benefit from close ties with energy companies?

Younger: As we are engineers, almost all of our research involves collaboration with industry. In many cases (e.g. Scottish Power) the same company is active in both renewables and fossil fuel usage, including carbon capture and storage (CCS). The notion that there are two utterly separate industries is fallacious, with the exception of very small companies which in general do not commission research. We cannot really do anything meaningful without industrial collaboration, as all our ideas need to be trialed in the real world if they are ever going to be adopted, and real-world energy infrastructure is all owned by companies.  For the most part, the support we get from industry is “in kind” – staff time, free access to data, access to facilities etc: financially, most of the money we spend on such research comes from the UK Research Councils, the Scottish Government (e.g. Energy Technology Partnership) and the EU. Only small proportions come from the companies themselves. So although we are not dependent on them financially, we do need to maintain god relations with them if our applied research is to see the light of day.

Guardian: Could the decision to divest change the relationship researchers have with energy companies?

Younger: That was our fear when this issue kicked off, and a few energy companies – plus government-funded research programmes in the oil and gas and CCS sectors – have expressed disquiet over the matter, seeing it as hypocritical that we would withdraw our funding from the sector, while still expecting them to sponsor our work. The University issued a statement clarifying that it does not intend the divestment concept to affect teaching and research, and that seems to be placating most of the companies and the government-funded programmes.

Guardian:  Do you believe this decision could deter students from studying  in the field of fossil fuel research?

Younger: That’s difficult to judge. Living as we do in Scotland, many of the best jobs for graduate engineers are with the oil and gas sector, and many of our alumni work in that sector. I have had some very upset undergraduates coming to me feeling that their degrees have been degraded by this announcement, and fearing that it will be held against them when they go job-seeking, with students from Scotland’s other engineering universities being favoured ahead of them. I doubt we will ever be able to prove that (unless, of course, none of our graduates get jobs in the sector anymore, which is unlikely). I don’t see much sign of these concerns deterring our students from studying the subjects they want so far, but again an anxiety is abroad that students thusly inclined will simply attend other universities.  The irony is that the majority of my research is on renewables (geothermal energy) – yet this uses the very technologies, and indeed the very same service companies, as the oil and gas sector. So without the latter we cannot pioneer a new renewable energy sector which Scotland so badly needs, as one of the few technologies that provides renewable HEAT (and heat is 55% of the energy we use), rather than just electricity (19%,  but all that wind, hydropower, tidal, wave and solar PV can provide).

Younger’s fears over the potential loss of research grants are not shared by all at the university. A source close to the University’s senior management came forward to the Glasgow Guardian with some figures to highlight why this is the case. “The University only gets about £350,000 in research money from the fossil fuel industry , which is 0.2% of the research portfolio overall, court was aware of those figures at the time of the decision, nothing has changed”. The source went on to say “The University’s priority, the Western Infirmary has received no investment from the fossil fuel industry and they were unlikely to invest in the move, regardless of divestment, so for the University and senior management it’s not of primary concern”