Last week’s open days saw more than forty people take part in the Alternative Open Days Tour, which aims to cast a light on Oxford’s “uncomfortable” past and present.
The tour, an initiative of the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign and the Uncomfortable Oxford Project, aimed to raise awareness among prospective students and members of the public of Oxford’s historic involvement in British colonialism and its contemporary involvement in fossil fuel extraction.
Sites of interest included the India Institute, Hertford, New College, All Souls, the Rhodes Statue, Oriel College’s façade, and Wadham College.
Tour attendees were also told of Wadham’s recent efforts to come to terms with its legacy, such as its moves towards fossil fuel divestment and its request for an ‘Uncomfortable’ investigation of its own colonial past, the first for an Oxford college.
The Divest and Decolonise tour is the two groups’ first joint programme, and both say they are planning to continue with similar tours at the beginning of the academic year.
One participant, Christabel Buchanan told Cherwell:“The divest and decolonise protest tour was fantastic. Extremely eloquently delivered, the tour guides took us to places with particular significance to the university’s colonial past and present. As an Oxford resident who has never been to the University, this really opened my eyes to how tied the University is to colonial practices such as resource extraction and dirty investments.
“We learned that, thanks to pressure from students, there are moves away from profiting from the fossil fuel industry and towards renewables or other environmentally sound investment choices. Thanks to its international reputation, Oxford University could lead the way in local and ethical investments, and it is encouraging that some colleges such as Wadham are taking this stance, alongside mindset shifts in other previously colonial institutions like the Rhodes Scholarship. It’s certainly not easy to find out where powerful institutions’ investments eventually end up, so this student group is doing great research, campaigning, and – thanks to this tour – outreach!”, she added.
The Oxford Climate Justice Campaign (OCJC) is an official campaign of the Oxford University Student Union, and campaigns for the full divestment of University and college endowments from the fossil fuel industry. The campaign has attended several open days at individual faculties, handing out flyers to prospective students with information about Oxford’s investments and responses to climate change.
Uncomfortable Oxford, which was founded by students last year,is a public engagement project which aims to raise awareness of uncomfortable historical legacies present in the University’s past or present. The project runs ‘uncomfortable’ discussion-based walking tours informed by archival research, covering topics such as imperial and colonial legacies, gender and ethnic diversity, ethical funding and wealth inequality.
An OCJC spokesperson said of the tour: “As evidenced by the recent school strikes across the world, young people are angry at the apathy of those in power towards the climate crisis. Oxford owes its prospective students a reformed attitude towards the future. While visitors gathered for the open day, the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign and Uncomfortable Oxford urged the University to engage with its history of exploiting both people and planet, and to use its wealth and international prominence to construct a fairer world for the next generation.”
University Council voted to institute a blacklist on direct investments in coal and tar sands in 2015. However, the University’s official position on divestment falls short of campaigners’ demands to remove both direct and indirect investments in coal, oil and gas.
Furthermore, an investigation carried out by Cherwell in 2018 revealed over £150 million invested by Oxford colleges in offshore funds that include exposure to fossil fuels, tobacco and arms.
Within individual Oxford colleges, 26 common rooms have passed motions in favour of full divestment from fossil fuels, and three colleges, including Lady Margaret Hall, Wadham and Balliol have set up official divestment working groups, which report to Governing Body. St Hilda’s has moved its endowment to Sarasin’s Climate Active Fund, which monitors and encourages the transition of companies in the portfolio to net zero-carbon targets.
Over 70 British universities, as well as five Cambridge colleges, have committed to full or partial divestment from fossil fuels.