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The University must come clean

Oxford obscures information from students who are campaigning for a more just, ethical university.

Oxford obscures information from students who are campaigning for a more just, ethical university. The new Vice-Chancellor of Oxford should prioritise transparency.

The Oxford Climate Justice Campaign (OCJC) has revealed through dogged research and investigation that the University and its colleges continue to receive money from the fossil fuel industry. While it is reprehensible that such financial relationships continue, we want to draw attention to another, equally important issue: the lack of transparency about those relationships in the first place.

We only know that BP, Shell, Total, ExxonMobil and the like are cumulatively donating millions each year to the University because generations of campaigners before us have battled for that information. That shouldn’t be the case. We call on the University to create a publicly available and searchable database of all research funding and donations it receives. A lack of transparency is unacceptable because it undermines trust and, more importantly, prevents accountability.

Student campaigns’ main way to expose the donations the University receives from fossil fuel companies and to get other information is through freedom of information (FOI) requests. But even with this legal instrument, which should compel the University to disclose, it is still a battle. First, FOIs can be a time-consuming undertaking for students. Lengthy delays from the University demand constant student pressure. OCJC has examples of the sheer persistence necessary. Often, only partial answers will be provided at the end of the delay. This relates to the second issue: the University frequently relies on exemptions built into the FOI Act of 2000. For instance, the University often refused to disclose because of the threat that disclosure would pose to the “commercial interests” of it and its funders (namely, companies like Shell and oilfield services firm Schlumberger), citing section 43 of the Act. It’s hard to take seriously the University’s commitments to sustainability when it withholds simple information about donations received from these companies in the interest of their profit margins.

The University has even more techniques to avoid disclosure. It has cited section 14 of the FOI Act, stating that a given request is substantially similar to a previous request and that, therefore, fulfilling the “new”, arbitrarily amalgamated request would violate section 42 of the Act: it would be too costly in terms of staff time to fulfill the information request. We have had to then consider referring the case to the Information Commissioners’ Office when the delays are unacceptable or the exemptions inapplicable. This, in turn, involves even more unpaid student time spent battling bureaucracy.

The FOI exemptions that the University cites are hard to take at face value. The University has admittedly provided more information after years of our requests (from a starting point of virtually zero information, it now usually provides names and amounts of donors, but only when FOIed and after many weeks). However, its justifications have never changed for resisting the vast majority of requests over the course of that change. This suggests an institutional response more focused on opacity for its own sake than following a consistent rationale for withholding information.

Even if we are sceptical of the motivations behind the exemptions that the University regularly invokes, perhaps there are other reasons for the lack of transparency? For example, there is arguably a line beyond which greater transparency might prevent the University from being able to discharge its obligations to students, either because of a damaged reputation or balance sheet. Or perhaps the thinking is that the donations we are speaking about are so insignificant as to not even be worth publishing.

But I can’t accept either argument. First, if OCJC were to do nothing, no one would know about what donations the University accepts from fossil fuel companies, how much, or when. And we haven’t heard that the disclosures we have painstakingly gleaned thus far have had a dramatic impact on the University’s ability to attract research funding. So, even if there is a “line”, it is hard to believe that we’re anywhere near it. As for the donations being insignificant, if this is true, then surely it would be a small job to make them public.

Regardless, these arguments miss the point and the principle. Transparency about the University’s ties to fossil fuels and from where it receives its funding is in the public interest, no matter the size of that funding. Accountability is only possible with that transparency. And we can’t simply take the University’s word for it.

The fight for transparency is not just OCJC’s. Oxford Worker Justice, the Climate League of Oxford and Cambridge, Divest Borders, It Happens Here and Rhodes Must Fall have all also battled with opacity. Student campaigns have had to undertake arduous investigations to get information on sexual harassment, staff wages and work conditions, and financial ties to the border industry. Even then, lengthy investigations often yield only partial information on these urgent issues. Dr Tena Prelec says that she “supports OCJC’s call for the University of Oxford to be more transparent”. She notes that the UK has no legal requirement for universities to report donations, making it extremely difficult to find accurate data about this, whis does little to address credible concerns about reputation laundering and authoritarian influencing. While “these issues are not exclusive to Oxford, the university has the chance to be the first mover in implementing radical transparency”.
As a campaign, we believe deeply that the University facilitates greenwashing and extends social license by accepting fossil fuel donations. We are calling for a public and searchable database because transparency depends on information being accessible as well as simply available. If institutions with as much capital as our University can’t be transparent, especially on issues so pressing as climate change and fair wages, then those institutions must change. We hope the new Vice-Chancellor will foster an environment of transparency, where students and University administration are able to work together in an environment of trust and thereby make the University an even greater force for good in the world.

Image: CC2.0//mike langridge

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