Warwick students defeat University barons

Activists at the University of Warwick just won one of their biggest victories in 40 years. On July 8, the University’s supreme decision-making body, Council, announced that Warwick will be removing its investments from coal, oil and gas companies as soon as is practicably possible.

We “proved a lot of people wrong” that day, and have “actually achieved something really significant”

For two years now, Fossil Free Warwick has been garnering support for divestment from a plethora of sectors across Warwick’s campus. Over 100 academics, the entire Students’ Union Sabbatical Officer team, and around 1,500 students had signed letters and petitions supporting the campaign to get the University of Warwick to move its money out of the fossil fuel industry. And now, they revel in an unadulterated victory. As one usually sceptical observer said, we “proved a lot of people wrong” that day, and have “actually achieved something really significant”.

The student movement was becoming a real threat to the ruling power structures of the time

We already knew that student activism could achieve great victories. Warwick Students’ Union has a permanent building thanks to a massive occupation that students undertook in 1970¹. In 1977, the University divested from stocks it held in companies propping up the extremist apartheid government in South Africa, and changed banks from Barclays in 1978 over the same issue.

But these moves came off the tail-end of a massive, worldwide mobilisation of the student population in the late 60s and early 70s. At Monash University in Melbourne, activists opened up an off-campus space to create links between student groups and local unions, and were subject to infiltration by ASIO, the Australian equivalent of MI5 ². In the United States, demonstrators were routinely surveilled and even shot dead at Kent State University.

It’s been achieving significant victories, and bringing students into the fold who have little or no experience with activism

These vicious reactions from the state were signs that the student movement was becoming a real threat to the ruling power structures of the time. Whilst that era can feel like a different epoch, there is increasing potential for the student movement to re-establish itself as a significant progressive force in the political life of the UK. A more assertive NUS, the increasing strength of radical direct action groups like the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, and re-invigorated environmentalism are hints that the movement’s gradient is positively angled.

The student branch of the worldwide Fossil Free campaign is helping drive this increasing radicalisation. It’s been achieving significant victories, and bringing students into the fold who have little or no experience with activism. Just before Warwick’s decision, SOAS of the University of London pledged to sell its fossil fuel holdings, following announcement from the Universities of Glasgow and Hawaii that they too refuse to allow their money to be used to bankroll climate change.

A clear, reasonable, achievable policy prescription: divestment from fossil fuels

Fossil Free UK has given structure, goals, and a nation-wide network to the environmental section of the student movement. It gives us a clear enemy: the fossil fuel industry, which spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year looking for more carbon it can’t burn, blocks action on climate change, and is linked to horrific human rights abuses. The campaign highlights the complicity between University administrations and this reckless industry, and centres on a clear, reasonable, achievable policy prescription: divestment from fossil fuels.

For Fossil Free to notch a stunning victory at the University of Warwick is, as the brilliant Guardian journalist George Monbiot tweeted, “especially impressive at such a corporate university”. Warwick is notorious for being an educational institution with foundations woven into the surrounding structures of industry. The great Warwick lecturer and historian E.P. Thompson described the institution as “Warwick University Ltd”. Since its inception, local and national corporations have encrusted themselves in the decision making structure of the University, both directly and in more clandestinely insidious ways. As the student resistance at the University grew at the end of the 60s, the security and management began monitoring activists and creating large files on their activities.

For an environmental campaign to beat management into submission on a campus slimy with the tentacles of the terrifyingly powerful fossil fuel industry is quite astonishing

Today, our campus is home to BP’s only UK-based corporate archives. Shell is listed on plaques thanking our original donors. Students are sponsored by arms companies like BAE, and the entire careers-service and normative structure of academic life in the Department of Economics is designed to funnel mentally disciplined graduates into the finance industry. In December last year, police stormed a sit-in and unleashed CS gas into the eyes of terrified students, arresting three. An injunction against “occupation-style protests” on campus was taken out shortly afterwards, and remains in place. For an environmental campaign to beat management into submission on a campus slimy with the tentacles of the terrifyingly powerful fossil fuel industry is quite astonishing.

Most on our campaign never truly believed we would win success until the night before the decision. If we can get Warwick to divest in such a context, imagine the power students can reclaim if they have the self-belief, tactical astuteness and political awareness necessary. We might even end up getting back on the radar of the NSA, GCHQ and ASIO.

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