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Report on ‘marketisation of British education’ cites Cambridge University links to fossil fuel firms

The University of Cambridge is recognised across the world for its academic virtues
The University of Cambridge is recognised across the world for its academic virtues

A new report from Cambridge Carbon Zero Society has highlighted concerns about the “ongoing marketisation of the British education system”, and calls for the university to “cut all extractive research by the university” which it says is skewing the academic model in favour of the agenda of specific industries and their representatives.

Titled “Dismantling the Fossil Fuel University”, the report by the student-led organisation looks into the ways that funding impacts academic life - an issue which faces all universities as they reach out for investment.

Cambridge Carbon Zero Society reports that the funding models involved are not just “distorting the direction of university research, money and personnel towards the fossil fuel industry, [but] this process legitimises the industry at a time when its central and continued role in the creation of the climate crisis is undeniable”.

“Named professorships like the BP Professorship of Chemistry, Shell Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Schlumberger Professorship of Complex Physical Systems allow fossil fuel companies to portray themselves as respectable and academically necessary”, say the authors. “Awards and prizes such as The ExxonMobil Prize and BP Chemistry Prizes are relatively cheap attempts by fossil fuel companies to greenwash and funnel students into fossil fuel jobs on graduation.”

Published today, the study also raises concerns about the BP Institute, describing it as “a large research institute with an explicit focus on multiphase flow in oil pipes which ‘has helped enhance recovery from challenging and mature reservoirs and avoid hydrate build-up in pipelines’”, according to the Institute's own report. “It is an exchange channel between BP and the university and has the purpose of furthering fossil fuel extraction,” the authors say of the organisation.

Another organisation, Cambridge Arctic Shelf Programme (CASP), is described as “a research group of the Department of Earth Sciences whose primary goal is finding and characterising new oil reserves across the globe”.

“They have active projects across the globe including into Arctic, all of which are funded by annual subscriptions by fossil fuel companies,” the report states.

Until recently - the site has now been taken down - the CASP listed its advisory board as including Shell, ExxonMobil, Total, Chevron and BP.

The university has rebutted the claim.

“CASP is not part of the university, but is an independent charity registered with the Charity Commission, and none of its staff are university employees,” a spokesperson told the Cambridge Independent. “Information on the BP Institute - whose research includes exploring the physics and chemistry of making chocolate and the dynamics of explosive volcanic eruptions - is publicly available on the BPI website.

“The CASP website has been removed from the university’s internet ecosystem alongside other non-affiliated bodies.”

Fossil fuels are helping the world to warm to unprecedented levels
Fossil fuels are helping the world to warm to unprecedented levels

The report estimates that fossil fuels companies gave the university £12.8million between 2015-2018 or just over £3million per year. By comparison, the university’s annual research income last year was more than £524million.

The university responded by stating: “The university holds no direct investments in fossil fuels. The Cambridge University Endowment Fund invests or buys shares of managed funds. That means most of its investments are shares of funds.

“The shares in companies purchased and traded by the funds are called indirect investments. Only five per cent of the CUEF’s indirect investments are invested in the energy sector. Not all of these indirect investments in energy are likely to be fossil fuel extraction companies. Some may be invested in renewable energy and other non-extractive companies in the energy sector, so the figure indirectly invested in fossil fuel companies is likely to be even smaller than five per cent.

“It’s not possible to have a totally accurate snapshot figure beyond something that says five per cent or smaller of the £3.4billion total because of course shares are bought and sold all the time.”

The report is certain to raise the issue of the university divesting its fossil fuel investments, however large or small they may be.

“The university again rejected divestment in 2018," says the report. "In 2019, following the submission of a Grace signed by 324 members of Regent House, the University Council committed to producing a report looking 'more deeply' into the advantages and disadvantages of divestment, with the report or a progress update to be delivered by October 2019.”

“This is not a university matter, it's a public matter,” said Prof Tony Booth, a research fellow at the Centre for Commonwealth Education, in response to the publication of the study.

“It is a shock to read about these fossil fuel companies' activities when we know they're killing off the planet,” Prof Booth told the Cambridge Independent.

“The Cambridge Arctic Shelf Programme seems to have been entirely funded by the fossil fuel industry. The BP Institute can look like a benign organisation, but it was set up by an endowment from BP, enough for the building, staff and activities. How bad is this report? It's pretty bad. And it's certainly a scandal that Cambridge's climate scientists haven't spoken with one voice on the issue of climate breakdown.”

The report concludes: “This process [of accepting funding] legitimises the industry at a time when its central and continued role in the creation of the climate crisis is undeniable.”

The University of Cambridge told the Cambridge Independent: "The University does not undertake contract research that is directly commissioned by external partners as this does not meet the requirements for open publication and communication of our research results and conclusions, including the ability to publish in open literature. The ability to widely disseminate our research findings is a fundamental principle of the academic mission of the University and consistent with our work as an academic charity."

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