Dark Money Investigations: News

British universities slammed for taking £90m from oil companies in four years

Exclusive: Campaigners condemn ‘scandalous’ funding, saying it is ‘a blemish on the reputations of the UK’s leading academic institutions’

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy
11 December 2021, 12.00am
Oxford is among British universities to have accepted money from major oil companies
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Pete Lusabia / Alamy Stock Photo

British universities have accepted almost £90m in funding from major oil companies since 2017, openDemocracy can reveal.

Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London have been criticised for taking the most, with one MP branding the relationship between oil giants and universities “scandalous”.

Imperial College London has accepted more than £54m, including £39m from Shell – with which it boasts of having a “long-standing and fruitful partnership”.

The college has refused to explain exactly what the money was used for, simply saying that it funded research into “energy transition, lowering carbon emissions in extraction and in carbon mitigation measures”.

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Cambridge University also received more than £14m from oil giants, while Oxford University got almost £8m. These include large donations to Oxford’s Said Business School Centre for Corporate Reputation.

In total, 36 universities said they have received funding from eight oil giants, with others refusing to disclose whether they had received similar funding.

The findings come as universities face growing pressure to reduce carbon emissions and break ties with fossil fuel corporations.

Last month, more than 40 senior academics and scientists signed an open letter pledging not to work with the Science Museum because of its sponsorship deals with oil companies.

“It is scandalous that British universities are so out of step with both public opinion and the climate science in continuing to be on the payroll of the fossil fuel giants,” Green MP Caroline Lucas told openDemocracy.

“There is no justification for taking money from oil and gas firms and no justification for being complicit in the greenwashing of these big corporations.”

Lucas added: “It's high time universities ended their cosy relationship with polluters. If they don’t, I am sure students will increasingly vote with their feet and avoid those institutions that are jeopardising their very futures.”

Last month, openDemocracy revealed how Warwick University collaborated with oil firm BP to snoop on a student climate campaigner. Connor Woodman, who was researching BP’s archive, which is housed on Warwick’s campus, was targeted with “very discreet security” in 2015 after he requested access to his records.

It has now emerged that the university has received at least £100,000 of research funding from BP since 2017.

Friends of the Earth today condemned the funding, saying it “tarnishes the reputations of the UK’s leading academic institutions”.

A spokesperson for the group said: “By accepting millions of pounds in grants and sponsorship from the fossil fuel industry, UK universities are complicit in propping up and legitimising the existence and operations of some of the most harmful companies on the planet.”

There is no justification for being complicit in the greenwashing of these big corporations

Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the institutions were asked to reveal details of any funding they had accepted since 2017 from eight of the biggest oil firms: BP, Shell, Total, Equinor, Eni, Chevron, Exxon or ConocoPhillips. The figures include donations, gifts, grants and research funding.

Of those that provided details, Imperial College London, Oxford and Cambridge universities had received by far the most. Southampton, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Bath universities also took more than a million pounds each from the oil firms.

In total, universities said they had received £89.7 – but the true figure could be far higher because many institutions failed to provide details.

A spokesperson for the campaign group People And Planet said: "UK higher education is firmly in the grasp of corporate fossil fuel interests and is acting as a key pillar of support propping up the extractive industries most responsible for destroying our planet."

‘Commercial interests’

Transparency campaigners have also criticised several universities for failing to provide details about fossil fuel funding.

The London School of Economics (LSE) said it couldn’t reveal any information because it would “prejudice the commercial interests of the school, by making it more difficult to raise funds from private donors in the future”.

The University of Surrey also refused to disclose details of its research funding from BP, on the advice of BP itself. “After contacting BP, they confirmed that they consider the specific amount of the funding as being commercially sensitive,” the university said.

Katherine Gundersen, deputy director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said that universities should “publicly justify” their funding “so an informed debate can be had”.

‘Greenwashing’ allegations

With pressure mounting on universities, some argue that oil funding has allowed academics to conduct important research into climate change and renewables. But critics say this has simply helped the companies with “greenwashing”.

Cambridge University said that, since October 2020, it has accepted funding from oil companies only if it was sure that the collaboration would help the UK “transition to decarbonised energy”.

The move followed reports in 2019 that it had accepted £6m from Shell to fund research into oil extraction technology. BP and Shell have also given hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of gifts to Cambridge, such as student prizes and student support.

A spokesperson for the university said that donors do not direct the research they fund, adding: “Over the past five years funding from traditional energy sector partnerships represented around 0.5 per cent of the University of Cambridge’s combined annual research and philanthropic income.”

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Meanwhile, Oxford University told openDemocracy it was unable to provide figures for all of its oil money “because of the need to consult the relevant funders”. The university said it would not disclose the information until it had received “confirmation” from the oil companies.

A spokesperson said that Oxford “safeguards the independence” of its work, with funding “often going directly into research into climate-related issues and renewables”.

An Imperial College London spokesperson also defended its funding, saying it helped to “develop meaningful solutions to climate change”.

“We are using our influence and expertise to accelerate this transition, and we actively engage with energy companies to push them towards the Paris Agreement targets,” the spokesperson said.

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