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Welcome to Cambridge. It’s a strange, and very old place with lots of odd customs and traditions to get your head round. Working out what the University of Cambridge is takes some time and, when it hits you, it’s tough. When your home has connections to war crimes and ecocide, motivating yourself to get out of bed can become a near-impossible task. We are writing this not to scare anyone or trigger feelings of powerlessness, but because we want to be honest about the violent realities of the place we live in, and we are hopeful about the community it can become. There’s a lot to say and we will only scratch the surface of Cambridge’s impact, but once you have a picture of what the University is, it becomes easier to imagine what it could be, and the steps we have to take to get there.

Let’s begin with the University’s mission statement: “to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.”

It sounds nice. But we ‘contribute to society’ in other ways, too. Just turn on the TV and you’ll see it. Four million barrels of oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico? The F16 fighter aircraft bombing occupied Gaza? All those figures saying we’re nowhere near on course to meet critical climate targets? You’ll find Cambridge in there somewhere, and it won’t be pursuing ‘education, learning and research’. So what’s the common denominator?


The University of Cambridge is the richest higher education institution in the UK, where the university and its colleges have consolidated net assets of at least £11.8bn. It is not, despite what many in the university’s establishment would tell you, strapped for cash. This capital is how the university primarily ‘contributes to society’.

£3.5 billion of the university’s endowment sits in the Cambridge University Endowment Fund, which, in 2020, after years of tireless campaigning by student and faculty activists announced that it would be divesting from fossil fuels by 2030 — “responding comprehensively to a pressing environmental and moral need for action”, as the Vice-Chancellor put it. At the time of writing, the fund’s seventh largest holding at 2.21% is Indraprastha Gas Ltd, a fossil-fuel distributor. It’s laughable. Most of the University’s climate claims, we hope to show, ultimately amount to hot air.

“Most of the university’s climate claims... ultimately amount to hot air.”

Whether colleges double up investments in renewable technology or not, they usually do this on a timeframe which matches their institutional ambitions, rather than the urgency of the ecological crisis we face. King’s, John’s, Christ’s and Trinity have all opted for a 2030 divestment deadline, which makes no effort to acknowledge the communities facing the full force of the climate crisis now. Trinity College sits snugly on an endowment worth £1.1 billion and disavows exploitative and polluting industries only when it is ’consistent with the College’s income growth objectives’.

The University has made a start — fossil fuel companies have been, in theory, removed from many colleges’ investment portfolios. But in practice, there’s a lot of work left to be done — most colleges have tried to get away with the bare minimum. In 2020, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign found that the university had amassed £109,820,000 of investments in companies complicit in supporting Israel’s violations of international law. Divestment, despite the tireless campaigning of PalSoc, has not touched these investments and ignores the arms industry altogether. Even Jesus College, whose divestments are seen as the ‘gold-standard’ in institutional climate action, ignored the Jesus College Climate Justice campaign’s (JCCJC) recommendations to ‘broaden the scope of divestment’ to include the arms industry. Jesus’ investments in BAE systems, whose aircraft were used to bomb hospitals in Yemen, remain.

So, what’s next? Firstly, we need to ramp up the urgency of divestment. Many colleges still haven’t made any attempts to cut their ties with the fossil fuel industry. We have nine years to reduce our emissions by approximately 90% in order to have a chance of mitigating global warming to the 1.5℃ rise recommended by the IPCC. Divestment must happen now, not over a period of nine years, or once it’s financially viable. These are our make-or-break years.

Secondly, limiting divestment to fossil fuels is reductionist and, ultimately, selfish. PalSoc and others continue to campaign for a broader divestment which takes into account human rights violations perpetrated by the FTSE-listed world wreckers to whom our capital remains committed.

Thirdly, as the JCCJC recommends, we need to think about the ecosystem of divestment. If we’re divesting from fossil fuels, but still employing asset-management companies like Schroders - who have an abysmal record of voting against positive climate resolutions at the AGMs of corporations they invest in — we’re sending an incomplete message. Finding alternatives to those fuelling environmental catastrophe will be difficult, but, in the meantime, campaigns like Boycott Barclays are sending a message to the big banks bankrolling climate breakdown, that, like the fossil fuel industry, they should start changing — fast.

“Reparations must be tangible, financial — just as our profiteering from colonial projects was tangible and financial.”

Finally, let’s remember where our wealth came from. Sixteen colleges are currently cooperating with the Legacies of Slavery Inquiry, an internal inquiry into the university’s historical complicity in the slave trade. If, as Jesus College has already admitted, our wealth has been partially accrued through decades of brutal enslavement, then we need to not only acknowledge this, but make reparations. These cannot simply take the form of educational partnerships or other PR-exercises. Writing for Al Jazeera, Mohammed Elnaiem argues that to limit ‘reparation’ to these image-based academic initiatives would be ‘to strip that word of its meaning’. Reparations must be tangible, financial — just as our profiteering from colonial projects was tangible and financial.

This is our history. This is our university. These are our investments. Jesus College’s ‘bold’ divestment plans should be the bare minimum. Climate action, international solidarity, reparations for decades of profiteering from violence and exploitation, all these and more are contingent on getting divestment right. This means thinking beyond divestment to the programme of positive and reparative investment that must follow.