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27th November 2017

Student protesters demand divestment

Demonstrators from a coalition of groups rallied outside a meeting of the Board of Governors to oppose university investments in fossil fuels and links to the Israeli arms trade

Student activists staged a sit-in demonstration underneath Whitworth Arch last Wednesday to protest the university’s continued financial links to oil companies and corporations involved in the Israeli arms trade.

Taking place next to the Whitworth building, the sit-in was preceded by a march from All Saints campus at Manchester Metropolitan University, which recently topped a league table by People and Planet of the UK’s greenest universities, while Manchester University ranked just 71st.

The march concluded at the arch by the entrance to the Council Chambers in the Whitworth Building, where the university Board of Governors were holding a meeting. A large orange banner reading “enough is enough: divest now!” was also unveiled under the arch.

The march and sit-in took place as part of a national day of action in coordination with student campaigners at UCL, Leeds, Loughborough, Plymouth, Swansea, Bristol and Cambridge, following a three year campaign for divestment over the £7 million currently invested by the university in companies including BP and Shell, which amounts to 3.9 per cent of Manchester’s endowment fund.

The partaking demonstrators represented a variety of student groups including People and Planet, Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Unis Resist Border Controls and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Chanting slogans including “we won’t rest until you divest”, they occupied the walkway under the Whitworth arch with the aim of making their demands heard to the governors inside and hoping to speak with them directly as they left the building.

Prior to this action, pro-divestment campaigners had already appealed to university management with a letter signed by over 90 academics and an online petition, which at the time of writing has reached almost 17,000 signatures.

Callum Tyler, chair of the Manchester branch of People and Planet, said that student groups were “sick of being ignored” by the board of governors after three years of campaigning for divestment from fossil fuels, and were trying to raise greater awareness among students of the university’s investments.

“We want to see more responsibility in how they spend money, and see them invest in sustainable alternatives,” he said, adding that “not enough people know about this, so we hope more people get to hear us today. Divestment is now a trend across universities and Manchester is lagging behind.”

According to People and Planet, the UK is the global leader in divestment by universities from fossil fuels, with one-third of British universities taking steps to partially or completely cut their stakes in the oil industry. Since the commitment in August of nine more institutions, including Canterbury Christ Church and the University of Cumbria, to abandon their investments, a total of 54 across the country have pledged to divest funds. 22.5 per cent of British universities have committed to full divestment, contributing to a £10.7 billion reduction in financial support for oil companies – a figure that climbs to £80 billion worldwide.

Environmental concerns were not the only ones brought to the forefront, as demonstrators from the BDS campaign also called for divestment from corporations acting in Israel. Particular emphasis was placed on Caterpillar, an American construction company in which Manchester has a stake of over £800,000, and which has manufactured bulldozers deployed by the Israeli army in Palestine, displacing people from 25,000 homes.

At the sit-in, speakers expressed anger that Dame Nancy Rothwell had, in their eyes, repeatedly failed to respond to requests from Palestinian students at Manchester for them to meet with her and discuss their opposition to the university’s links with Israel.

Mohamed Sakr, a student activist with BDS, spoke of his feelings of being “complicit” in the actions of some of the university’s investment partners. He added that tuition fees are being fed directly into “injustice committed by corporations and fossil fuels companies. It’s not an option for students to be quiet — we don’t pay our fees to fund war crimes.”

A representative of the university’s Jewish Society asserted the right of the demonstrators to stage a protest, even one so critical of the university’s links to Israel, and their society’s “commitment to respect and free speech on campus.”

They added, “JSoc caters for all Jewish students, and therefore houses a wide range of views on Israel. Some members of our JSoc may oppose the BDS activity on campus, but we respect the right of various groups to protest and support their cause, and we hope to receive the same treatment.”

In a statement, a university spokesman claimed that recent updates to its Socially Responsible Investment Policy signals a greater commitment by the university to support low or zero-carbon projects. They said that the promotion of such investments would “allow [the university] to pursue an ethical investment approach, whilst minimising any potential negative impact on its investment returns. This approach includes a commitment to identifying and promoting low or zero-carbon investments.”

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