Student campaigners Eleanor Salter and Khem Rogaly have been at the forefront of the push for divestmentNoella Chye

The movement for divestment is caught in a moment of reckoning.

The disappointment and, above all, outrage, brewing in student campaigners reeling from the University’s decision on Friday hangs in the air. Their silence is palpable.

Three years of campaigning built up to the moment on Friday when news broke that Cambridge would not remove its investments in fossil fuels. Over the years, campaigners have watched the University lurch from one deflection of their concerns to the next, responding to a pro-divestment Regent’s House Grace by creating a divestment working group.

The group’s report, which recommended a position of ‘considered divestment’ to University Council earlier this year, had three years of work characterised, then discounted, as a product of insufficient information.

Now, campaigners face a mixture of disappointment and, underpinning that, the audacity, clearer than ever before, of three years of dismissal.

“There’s this exhausting feeling that we’re going to have to keep fighting, and fighting, and fighting, just to get this one thing pushed forward,” Khem Rogaly, a student campaigner, tells me.

“It seemed, from the off, that they were decided”

“It seemed, from the off, that they were decided,” Eleanor Salter, co-president of Cambridge Zero Carbon, says.

Salter, like many others in Zero Carbon, will graduate this month. The push for divestment has shaped their time in Cambridge, Friday’s decision marking the end of both a chapter in Zero Carbon and their time here. I ask how it feels to have to leave on this note.

“It’s been a lesson,” she tells me, “in the limits of student politics, and the limits to which people who are set in their ways and in their decisions and who are deeply embedded in systems of power and financial wealth will listen to people who want to build a better world.”

They leave a legacy in their wake, but one some worry may go unremembered if the University takes credit. Rogaly says, “I know when this University does divest, all the labour that went in of all these people around us, before us, and after, will be forgotten.”

Friday’s decision has emerged as a tangible sign of how decisions are made in the University – long before any democratic platform can give voice to anyone outside Senate House, and with financial officers at the centre of the process.

The way the dialogue between campaigners and decision-makers has emerged around divestment is unique. Ed McNally, a recent campaigner, pointed to the vice-chancellor’s open meetings this and last term as a microcosm for the dynamics developing – flexibility around all other issues raised, but a brick wall at the first mention of divestment. This time, after running through democratic channel after channel, the University isn’t relenting.

“It’s not functioning,” McNally remarks about the University’s democratic channels. “When something like divestment has gone through the actual mechanisms like CUSU, Regent House – ostensibly there as the means by which University members can express their political wishes and desires – [there’s] an existential question of... What’s the purpose of those?”

“The University thinks it’s exempt from any sort of social responsibility”

“I think it’s a pretty worrying situation for a University to be in,” Sam Warren Miell, a campaigner who went on hunger strike for six days last month to push Cambridge to divest, remarks. He adds, “The University thinks it’s exempt from any sort of social responsibility, and it seems to think of itself as completely impervious to any kind of pressure from outside,” including its fellows and students.

“It seems so different from what a University is promised to be run like,” another campaigner, Rebecca Loy, says.

Now all eyes are on the University’s finance division. Friday marked the final straw in a year of mounting realisation that the University’s financial decision-making procedure remains impenetrable. “We never see them,” McNally remarks.

What we’re seeing is a separation of economics from politics, McNally tells me. The University, it seems, has detached its financial arm from the rest of its governance, immunising it from democratic pressure. It’s easy, in this system, to conceive of its finances as a separate realm, driven purely by commercial interest – a structure which reinforces its refusal to consider the political, moral ramifications at stake.

One key campaigner, Angus Satow, asked: in a report centred around divestment, why was no mention made of the human lives and rights it could save?

“The reason why the divestment campaign couldn’t succeed where other student campaigns could is that it’s fundamentally striking at that centre of power,” Satow notes.

“We need to change the structure so that the right decisions can be made”

Amid the starkness of how things have unfolded, thoughts remain about what could have been – full divestment, to campaigners, would have been the opportunity to take control of the University’s impact on the environment, forming a precedent that could reverberate worldwide.

“The climate crisis is a good opportunity to democratise, to transfer power, both globally and locally,” Satow comments, as climate change reinforces systems of power that exist today. The threat looms that large swathes of the planet will become uninhabitable, putting human lives at risk on a new scale – he says, “they won’t be where the rich live.”

A murky, tangled mess of a future lies ahead. This year has revealed a University on a clear trajectory. Staff strikes, the undertaking of a controversial £600m bond, and now, a landmark decision on divestment, have raised question after question of whose interests lie at the heart of University decision-making.

More questions hang in their wake: how will the incompatible worldviews within the institution – the rigid structures of the University’s system and students’ goals – unfold in a system bursting at the seams?


Mountain View

Interview: Four days in, hunger strikers speak out

Campaigners are seeing, with new light, that the real obstacle here is not a single decision, but an edifice of power demanding structural change. Miell remarks, “We need to change the structure so that the right decisions can be made, so that there is a structure in place in which a decision, which seems impossible now, is possible.”

Already, ideas are bubbling. Separately, we discuss ideas for changing the governance – re-empowering Regent House, giving elected student representatives a stronger voice, and dismantling the power parity between the University and its financial arm.

The months ahead will be hazy as campaigners enter new territory, and with it, a landscape of questions. The decision on Friday will serve as a landmark, a source of deep frustration through which campaigners can channel their determination in the period of reflection ahead.

Satow, who graduates this month too, spoke of the campaign he mobilised but is now leaving behind, “They haven’t neutralised us whatsoever, they’ve only given us strength.”