Over the past few years we have had an ongoing conversation about the future of the ANU and the modern Australian university. Should we deregulate fees? If the Sydney College of the Arts isn’t profitable should it be moved, or whittled down like our School of Music was? How should we approach the renovation of Union Court? Should researchers have to endlessly apply for grants and churn out papers to stay viable, or should we foster a culture of research for its own sake?
Basically, should Australian universities be run as for-profit institutions that sell degrees to those who can afford them, or as spaces that foster creativity, education, and research and are open to anyone who wants to come along?
Fossil Free ANU (FFANU) are proponents of the latter. FFANU is an autonomous and student-run movement of the Environmental Collective, campaigning for ANU to divest from the fossil fuel industry. They see the modern university as a place that allows people to come together to learn, create, do research, share knowledge, and celebrate human endeavour. Moreover, they believe things should be available to all, and should be funded with public taxpayer money, to encourage a public institution which works for the public good.
The ANU’s continued investment in the fossil fuel industry is one barrier to this vision.
These investments are mutually exclusive with the vision of a just and equitable university. They make the ANU – and by extension, its students – complicit in funding climate change. By investing in the fossil fuel industry and its associated injustices, the ANU is turning its back on the hope of it being a public institution that operates for the public good.
How can the ANU operate for the public good if it’s invested in an industry that is killing the Reef, bringing our farmers to their knees, and widening the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians? How can it claim to be an institution that celebrates research when it ignores its own scientists, who repeatedly support divestment from fossil fuels in favour of kick starting a renewable economy? How can it claim to be a #thoughtleader when it is ignoring every argument and every piece of research showing, that being a leader today, suggests it must be a leader in the fight for climate justice?
The ANU lags behind in this fight. It could have been the first university in Australia to commit to divestment, but La Trobe took that crown in May of this year, and the Queensland University of Technology followed suit earlier this month. Across the Tasman, the University of Otago in Dunedin similarly divested on September 14. Any one of the universities of Canberra, Sydney, or Melbourne could be the next: so when will ANU divest?
Over the past five and a half years the FFANU campaign has produced small but significant steps towards divestment. They made scientific, moral, and financial cases for divesting. They demonstrated that ANU staff and students, and the wider community, overwhelmingly support divestment. They convinced the university to adopt a Socially Responsible Investment policy, which resulted in a divisive partial divestment decision in October 2014.
This semester, FFANU is trying something new. The Alumni Pledge campaign combines a new class of people (alumni) and an issue that is very close to the ANU’s heart (donations). Students and alumni simply pledge that they will not donate to the ANU until it has committed to completely divesting from fossil fuels. The campaign has received a large amount of support thus far as alumni and students are unwilling to give their money to an institution that invests in climate change.
Meanwhile, the ANU has signalled that it is moving in the direction common among American universities of relying on alumni donations as a new source of revenue. This being the case, the ANU is likely to benefit from divestment. A brief by The Australia Institute from June last year found that “universities deciding to divest [from fossil fuels] would be met with much more support than criticism from the public and from their own alumni. Indeed, universities may find alumni more willing to donate, and are unlikely to find many people become unwilling to donate.”
Yet moving to the American model could also deepen the ANU’s commitment to the kind of university reliant on private sources of income; where profit is central and education is commercialised. To strike a balance between these possibilities – donation and divestment – FFANU recently updated the Alumni Pledge campaign. Now when an individual takes the Pledge, the University must remove that person from the donations contact and communication list. If the University commits to divesting from fossil fuels they may re-establish contact on that issue. Thus, alumni in support of divestment will only donate if the ANU represents their values, rather than a corporate agenda. FFANU is confident that focusing on the ANU’s bottom line will get their attention in a way nothing else has, and are looking forward to doing this in a way that also highlights and protests the corporatisation of Australian universities.
We – students and staff that are concerned about the environment and the future – need to free the ANU from what Canadian author Naomi Klein calls “corrosive corporate influences” so that it can live up to the vision of a liberated, inclusive and creative modern Australian university. This inextricably means completely divesting from fossil fuels.