Universities should be divestment leaders: Poll

Most Australians agree universities should avoid investments in fossil fuels, according to the first national polling on the topic released today by The Australia Institute in a new report.

The polling also shows university decisions to avoid fossil fuels may boost donations from alumni, while also encouraging people with superannuation to consider low carbon funds.

Tom Swann, researcher and author of the report Leading by Degrees, said “universities should not just watch the increasing moral debates about energy change. They should think deeply about the most powerful ways to lead these debates.”

“It is important universities realise that making ethical decisions on fossil fuel investments will find broad public and alumni support.”

According to the polling, 3 in 5 people agreed universities should avoid investments in fossil fuels, including 1 in 5 who strongly agreed. Support was higher among younger people and among those who agree with the science of human caused climate change.

Most university alumni polled said they would be more rather than less likely to donate if their university avoided fossil fuels, a net increase of 1 in 10 alumni being much more likely.

Tom Swann said “universities face strong standards, but people also say that university decisions may influence their own. It means that people recognise universities as leaders.”

While many Australians say they are prepared to switch superannuation funds to avoid coal and coal seam gas investments (28 per cent of $2 trillion total funds), others remain unsure (37 per cent). But 2 in 5 said they would be more likely to switch if universities and others avoided fossil fuels for ethical reasons, including 1 in 5 not currently prepared to switch.

The report outlines initial partial announcements from ANU and University of Sydney and comes as some Australian universities are reviewing their policies. On Tuesday, Melbourne University considers plans for a “Charter of Sustainability”, which may include ethical investing.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians recently banned fossil fuel shares due to health impacts. Oxford and Edinburgh Universities recently banned coal and tar sand oil investments. Norway’s $US900 billion wealth fund dumped coal investments as unethical.

“Universities can be a moral compass for society, so it matters which way they are pointing. I hope this report helps the sector deliberate on the role they are going to play,” Swann said.

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