What campaign are you from and what were your demands to the university?
When we started 3 years ago we had one clear demand:
“Divest from all fossil fuels - specifically those held with the external fund manager Sarasin and Partners”.
To what extent were your campaign demands met?
Completely. The university were quite good with their handling of divestment - albeit quite slow! Through the Divestment Commission that was set up, the university were part of shaping what divestment meant in the Durham context.
What tactics did you use to win on divestment, and which ones do you feel were most effective?
We used a variety of tactics including:
* The setting up of a Divestment Commission, which a Pro-Vice Chancellor was assigned to lead. The commission consisted of four university managers (including the Director of Finance and Head of Governance); two student members (a member of People & Planet and the SU President) and five people from across the academic faculties of the institution. Getting this established with both student and officer representation secured was fundamental to achieving divestment
* Getting JCRs supporting was important, because not only did this mean that we had extra support from other recognised stakeholders within the university structure, but it allowed us to mobilise student support
* A professional approach was taken – there were no rowdy and disruptive protests, but constructive conversations with the university who were engaged and supportive of exploring it as a concept and what it might mean in reality
What role(s) did the student group play in this campaign?
Drive and focus was the overall role of the student group (People & Planet/P&P). We did a lot of lobbying the SU and the university, conducted the research that provided all the information about divestment for the Commission and set the direction of the campaign. Importantly, the campaign was mostly student directed and student-led. We didn’t engage with the SU about it until start of 2016 and it was us who first initiated contact with the university about it.
What role(s) did the Students’ Union play in this campaign?
Following divestment being passed through the SU assembly, us student union officers had a mandate to progress the campaign within our roles as representatives of the student voice. We spoke in support of divestment at university council, had ongoing conversations with the VC and university management executive, and used our positions on committees to open-up divestment dialogue wherever possible. We were able to use the strength and weight of the students’ union within the institutional structure to advance the demands of the student group.
How did you work together? Were there any areas of cohesion and/or contention? If there was contention how did you overcome this?
Both the student group and the students’ union worked well together. The presence of both of us on the commission made the most difference as the SU representative wasn’t the lone student voice – as they are on many other boards and committees - but unified with another on the board. A students’ union staff member also supported the student group from a policy perspective.
The SU really helped as they knew how to navigate the university’s bureaucracy and knew how to frame arguments in a way that the university would have to meaningfully engage with. They met us before Divestment Commission meetings for preparation, and after for debriefs. These were useful for both knowing what we wanted to get out of Divestment Commission meetings and for learning other details, such as who does what in the institution and who makes the final decision. The SU were also supremely useful for providing insight & reassurance that we were doing the right things. They supported P&P to keep us hitting our established targets.
If you could give three pieces of advice to other fossil fuel divestment and reinvestment campaigners what would they be?
1. Have targets that are worthwhile, based on asking people what they want you to do – like P&P did with the VC. If people don’t agree with your aims, ask what it would take for them to change their mind. The chat we had with the VC in 2015 set the entire campaign for the year by providing a structure to our campaign strategy. To create this, we considered: who needs convincing? Who do we need to talk to do that? What tactics can we use to make it an institutional priority? We had focus weeks - a ‘contact academics’ week, a ‘get the petition going’ week etc… having these targets that you know are important bring you ever closer to victory
2. Don’t get bogged down in cynicism but mobilise and get mass student backing – inform the student body and be clear about what your demands mean
3. Use your voice. It is YOUR university. Try to speak with the university in the first instance and then escalate if that proves to be ineffective. Be diplomatic so that if this avenue is exhausted you can justify taking radical action. For us, we were lucky that the university’s Commission actually led to meaningful engagement, rather than them using it as a way to slow the campaign down
Following this victory, what will you be focusing on as campaigners?
There are two main campaigns we will be focusing on:
Mitie Must Fall – ending our university’s contract with a company which also runs detention centres. As this contract won’t be negotiated for another three to four years we are exploring how to embed human rights into the procurement policy as part of effecting this change. This will also lay the groundwork for the university to be better in their procurement activities more generally.
Divest Barclays – pressuring one of the world’s largest fossil fuel investors to ditch their fossil finance. The first part of this will focus on achieving a commitment from them to stop financing any new fossil fuel infrastructure. We will be pushing for our university and students’ union to refuse to bank with Barclays too.
We will also be progressing our partnership - which came out of our success on divestment - with the Durham Energy Institute. We are hoping to work together to achieve progress on environmental issues.
Huge thanks to Max Emmett - a member of Durham People & Planet during their Fossil Free Campaign - and Megan Croll - President of Durham Students’ Union 2017-18 - for chatting with us!