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Divestment activists stage rally outside Charles Stewart Building

Several dozen divestment activists staged a sit-in outside the Charles Stewart Building on Chamber Street this morning, swarming various entrance points to the building in protest of the University of Edinburgh’s fossil fuel investment policies.

Sporting bright red clothing and face paint and bundled against the morning wind, protesters gathered in groups to express their dissatisfaction with the pace of the university’s fossil fuel divestment plan, and what they characterised as an inadequate implementation strategy.   The protest, organised by anti-fossil fuel organisation People & Planet, lasted four hours and effectively shut the building down, according to the organisation.

“We’re here because we want the university to commit to categorically divesting from all fossil fuels and arms companies,” Nuri Syed Corser, third year anthropology and politics student and People & Planet spokesperson told The Student.

“This is very much about putting it back on the agenda, because [the university] is not engaging.”

Hannah Roques, third year English literature student and People & Planet organiser, expressed agreement, describing the protest as a response to what she saw as a tepid university approach.

“[The university] is obviously not going far enough and that’s what this action is about today,” she told The Student.  “It’s about saying that only divesting from the worst fossil fuel companies and arms companies is not really acceptable because they are all really really terrible and really detrimental.”

Staged outside the university’s primary finance building, the demonstration acted as a visual retort to a university investment policy announcement earlier this week.

On Tuesday, the university released an updated ethical investment policy carrying more stringent procedures for fossil fuel investments, including a transfer of current investments into a fund for closer ethical scrutiny and a new threshold to eliminate companies with more than a 20 per cent involvement in the arms trade.  The changes also included planned expansions into “social impact investing” and provisions to allow for increased student participation in investment decisions.

In a press release announcing the decision, the university characterised its decision as responsible and in line with its values and mission.

“The University’s commitment to responsible investment is tangible and underpins our stated values and our mission,” it said. “Significant progress has been made to date and work continues to ensure that the informed decisions taken by the University Court are quickly and effectively implemented.”

Activists acknowledged the steps put forward by the university as positive.  But they claimed that much had been left unaccomplished, and painted the current decision-making process as opaque and unhelpful.

“For us, the divestment campaign is about symbolism,” Roques told The Student.  “We want our public institutions to say publicly: ‘We’re not okay with these industries that are destroying the planet and fuelling conflict around the world.  That’s one of the main parts about the divestment movement—it’s a public shift.”

“We recognise that just a few institutions  taking their money away isn’t going to stop the industry, but what it’s about is taking away their confidence and their social legitmacy away,” Roques continued.  “So it’s absolutely not okay for Edinburgh to be sneaking its investments out bit by bit, because what we want is to show unequivocally that this is not okay.”

Pressed on the specifics of the university’s policy announcement, Roques said People & Planet took issue with the 20 per cent threshold for evaluating companies involved in arms.

“Our call in terms of companies producing armaments is that we want turnovers of over five percent,” she told The Student.

A university spokesperson was unavailable to comment on the protest and statements of People & Planet at time of press.

With hand painted banners and human barricades at the door, the demonstration harkened back to turbulent scenes from last spring, when activists from People & Planet stormed the entrances to Charles Stewart and occupied the main foyer for ten days.  The controversial course of action vaulted the campaigners into the national spotlight, and, activists say, provided the catalyst for the university to follow through on its promise to divest fully from coal and tar sands companies.

But despite its confrontational character, the atmosphere at Chamber Street on Friday was collegial and at times jovial.  Volunteers handed out baked goods to demonstrators squatted on the Charles Stewart steps.  Guitars and fiddles mixed alongside chants and megaphones, as onlookers lingered to take pictures.  A police van loomed in the distance, but security measures were otherwise light.

Representatives from People & Planet emphasised that the protest was a one day event in observance of Go Green week, a national event by their parent organisation.

“Today it’s just about putting on a protest,” Syed Corser told The Student.

“It’s the same aim we had in the spring.  But now we’re just trying to push it to the end.”

Image: People & Planet

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  1. UoEnot4me
    Feb 26, 2016 - 01:10 AM

    I have personal experience of the UoE staff pension schemes – even though these schemes were ‘ethical’ only mandates, the investment managers repeatedly invested UoE funds directly in arms companies in breach of this mandate, the reaction from UoE was basically no reaction, other than a ‘please don’t do that’ when actually noticed after some very great time – and that was on investments which UoE had contractually agreed may only be invested ethically. You should realise that UoE has only one interest and that is the UoE, all power corrupts and UoE is a racketeering behemoth in Edinburgh, while already owning much of central Edinburgh, the UoE is relentless in snapping up any available land space in central Edinburgh for student accommodation, driving locals out of the city with dubious flat developments, doing nothing to support affordable housing for residents elsewhere, charging the cost of an entire private let flat for a tiny studio bedroom in a communal UoE residence – I wonder what the profits are from these ventures and how these are enhanced by the UoE’s charity status? Perhaps it is more profitable than even teaching, Someone should really investigate fully how appropriate that is at it very much reeks of the same kind of outright corruption we have experienced with Edinburgh Council.

    Students efforts would be better placed in protesting against the university charity status, at the very least charity ‘tax’ status should not apply equally to all university ventures, including say profits from new built student accommodation. They are effectively a self serving corporation and see fit to have no reason to behave ethically. As money is the overriding goal of UoE, a better protest would be one where every student signs up to perhaps withhold paying their fees for one term as late as possible – that is the kind of direct action which would yield results with a large sign up, money is their overriding goal and anything affecting cashflow changes everything, that is how corporations work.

    The UoE is indicative of UK universities increasingly active in corrupt practises. For example why not examine the use of appointed far east ‘agencies’ to exploitatively recruit international students, paid by UK universities in excess of £1k per student to recruit applicants, but who then also charge each student thousands of pounds just to apply, and by all accounts once the agency is appointed, international students often have no involvement in any part of their own applications which are entirely written by the agencies – written/email or otherwise – yes the agencies often actually write every part of their applications. This is in no way the fault of international students who are more than welcome and a credit to the city, as all students are, and who have applied to study at UoE through perhaps the only route available to them and through the accepted normal methods. However when personal submission is such an integral part of an application for a UK/EU applicant, and where the numbers of less profitable government subsidised Scottish students gaining places at UoE is dropping dramatically each year, the mechanism which UoE has chosen to put in place to recruit international chequebooks does not submit international applicants to the same standard of personal submission. By not submitting all applicants to the same personal vetting and self qualifying standards as UK students, UoE and other UK universities use of far east ‘agencies’ appears to be yet another blatant scam, of which far east applicants are also financially the victims, often exploited by rogue agencies, not to mention the inflated fees they bring to UoE. The recruitment of students on a commission basis is hardly an ethical basis for any self respecting educational establishment to conduct itself, one wonders if these agents lofty fees are only payable by successful applicants or whether unsuccessful applicants also have to pay thousands of pounds not to even get a place at a UK uni, I personally know applicants defrauded out of £10k by fraudulent far east agencies.

    The reality is the UoE is exactly the same as any other corporation, or I should say exactly the same as any other particularly greedy, corrupt and unpleasant corporation, whose overriding concern is simply to maximise their power, maximise their profits and maximise their image, and they do not give a toss whatsoever about anyone or anything which gets in the way, unless they absolutely have to, now shut up and pay your fee.

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The Student Newspaper 2016