In recent years, the student climate movement has had great success campaigning for fossil fuel divestment. Ninety-two UK universities currently hold a divestment commitment—more than half of all those in the country. That number is a landmark achievement, and it wouldn’t have come about without the tireless work put in by the students and staff who demanded that their educational institutions take responsibility for their complicity in the climate and ecological crisis now facing our planet.
The impact of university divestment has been felt well beyond campuses. Oil companies report that divestment is a very real threat to their finances, and the ideas of ethical investment, including the exclusion of fossil fuel companies from portfolios, are now part of mainstream financial management.
But the fight is far from over, and in the higher education sector alone, there is much more to be done. Despite the growing move toward fossil fuel divestment, many universities still act as a key pillar propping up the extractive industries most responsible for the climate and ecological crisis. Specifically, by inviting oil, gas, and mining companies to attend student careers fairs, advertise their vacancies on careers websites, and promote jobs in emails to the student body, universities quietly condone the havoc their extraction wreaks on both people and planet.
Hundreds of thousands of students will be exposed to polluting companies in the coming days at the job fairs and careers workshops taking place for 2022 Re-Freshers Week. The universities at which they learn will be welcoming harmful, unsustainable industries and helping them present themselves as acceptable features of both our present and our future.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is already precedent for university career departments restricting which industries can access their services, with new freedom of information research from People & Planet finding that twenty percent of universities limit access from one or more of the tobacco, adult, and gambling industries. Many more must now step up and put a stop to the businesses responsible for upholding a violent colonial legacy in the form of climate change from advertising themselves as positive opportunities for students.
After all, promoting these industries through careers services is not a neutral act: it reinforces the huge power big polluters already wield, and thereby contributes materially to the climate and ecological crisis. On top of that, it makes no economic sense. Oil, gas, and mining jobs are dead-end jobs. Even the most conservative science acknowledges that we must dramatically scale down resource extraction if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
That means it’s in the interests of both students and universities to instead promote good, green jobs with a future. Only that way can higher education institutions take responsibility for their role in building the sustainable, ethical workforce we need to transition to a just and equitable energy system and low-carbon economy.
The climate crisis is already a reality, and it’s people in the Global South who are suffering the most. Total governmental inaction and the pursuit of endless capitalist economic ‘growth’ at the expense of both the earth and its inhabitants has left many facing unimaginable suffering in the here and now, which is only set to get worse in the years to come. The government’s complete refusal to address the urgent pressures of the climate catastrophe means that the responsibility of non-state actors like universities to step up is all the greater.
As our divestment victories show, the student movement can and must play a key role in the pursuit of environmental justice. That means tackling the ways in which our universities act as pillars of support for huge oil, gas, and mining corporations. With People & Planet’s Fossil Free Careers campaign seeking to end the recruitment pipeline into oil, gas and mining companies, and the NUS’s open letter urging universities to end their partnerships with polluting companies, that is what we plan to do.
This year’s Re-Freshers events don’t just present students with opportunities. They’re also an opportunity for the universities that host them. Right now, universities can choose to continue down the path of the destructive status-quo, or they can oppose this planet-killing collaboration between extraction and career services by dismantling recruitment pipelines into the oil, gas, and mining industry immediately.
The planet is dying. People are dying. Universities must act now.