Today marked the opening action day of the Fossil Free campaign in the United Kingdom, to coincide with the launch of a disgraceful new partnership between Shell and the University of Oxford – one of our most prestigious higher education institutions. Louise Hazan explains how US students’ rallying call for fossil fuel divestment has been taken up by the country’s largest student activist network, People & Planet.

This afternoon I joined dozens of Oxford alumni, staff and students, at a protest outside Oxford University’s Earth Sciences department to denounce a new £5.9 million partnership and the growing influence of big oil companies over the research agenda of UK universities. Far too many of the 160 British universities support the continued extraction of fossil fuels, not only through their endowments being invested in companies like BP and Shell, but also through research partnerships and their role as de-facto recruitment agencies for the industry.

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Shell is a particularly inappropriate and unsavoury choice of funder for a new Earth Sciences laboratory in Oxford, not least because Oxford’s own climate scientists are warning us that we need to leave the majority of known fossil fuels in the ground. Many of these scientists were among the 100 high profile alumni and students who signed a letter publicly denouncing the Shell partnership in today’s Guardian newspaper. Shell’s core business activities and political lobbying are pushing us towards a future with a global temperature increase well in excess of 2 degrees and yet many of the new studentships funded by today’s deal specifically focus on the extraction of unconventional hydrocarbons such as shale oil.

Worryingly, the UK Government is endorsing this partnership, with Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey attending the launch in person. This suggests that our government feels no qualms about its cuts to university research funding pushing our best universities into partnerships with the world’s worst companies and further towards a global climate crisis.

So whilst the official ceremony took place inside, students staged their own ‘Closing Ceremony’ outside. Set in 2018, the humourous mock ceremony brought together the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Shell’s Head of Unconventionals and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey to apologise for their “earlier mistakes and celebrate the University’s transition into a completely Fossil Free institution!”.

A few hours before the protest student representatives had succeeded in passing an emergency motion through the Oxford University Student Union council meeting and launched a Fossil Free Oxford University petition that has already gathered nearly 300 signatures. Their campaign, modelled on the rapidly growing US divestment movement, calls on Oxford University not only to divest its large endowment from fossil fuels, but also to re-assess it research funding and other relationships with the fossil fuel industry.

People & Planet’s Fossil Free UK campaign will be launching nationwide this summer, in partnership with, and we are planning a ‘Do the Math’-style tour for Bill McKibben this autumn to several UK universities. But until then, we must stand up and denounce the dangerous influence that oil companies are buying within our education institutions and stand up for a fossil free future whenever the chance arises. That’s why today so many of us came out to urge Oxford University to lead by example and dissociate itself from Shell before its own reputation is tarnished and the future of its students is jeopardised by runaway climate change.

Watch this space for more news from UK students soon!