Could the decision by Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam to cut ties with fossil fuel companies represent a turning point for universities across Europe?

This April, the Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam announced an end to all research collaborations with the fossil fuel industry, in the most comprehensive Fossil Free Research (FFR) policy to date. The university has announced an end to collaborations with all companies that cannot demonstrably commit to the Paris Agreement in the short-term. The VU has shown it is possible to quickly and collaboratively adopt a FFR policy — and it’s time for university leaders across Europe to listen and follow suit.

We are students of VU Amsterdam and of Cambridge University who are pushing for FFR at our universities. For too long, we have heard administrations claim that a FFR policy isn’t feasible. We can and must use the VU as proof that university leadership is delaying action for no reason.

It’s no secret that fossil fuel companies have known about climate change for decades whilst doing nothing to address it; they have instead spent decades delaying climate action. As young people whose lives will be shaped by the climate crisis, we cannot continue to sit back and watch as fossil fuel companies carry out this disinformation campaign. Fossil fuel companies pour millions into academic research, leveraging the prestige of the universities they affiliate with to influence research outcomes and greenwash their reputations. It’s also been shown that the research funded by the fossil fuel industry is more likely to speak in favour of further fossil fuel extraction.

Momentum for universities to dissociate from Big Oil has been growing steadily in the Netherlands and across Europe. Student leaders just like us, working in cooperation with the End Fossil: Occupy movement, have organised occupations of higher education institutions. These students are calling for an end to the fossil economy internationally. In May alone, students occupied universities in Utrecht, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Velp, Eindhoven and Delft with demands ranging from FFR to democratised university governance.

In February of this year, following student occupations, the University of Amsterdam announced a moratorium on research collaborations with oil giant Shell. In March, The Erasmus Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Rotterdam announced it would not accept funding from the tobacco, arms and fossil fuel industries. At VU, the threat of an occupation was a catalyst for senior administration to act, and they were ultimately able to reach an agreement with activists in April.

None of these policies were won in isolation — the FFR movement has been demanding universities cut off fossil fuel funding for climate research around the world. The Fossil Free Research Open Letter, calling for an end to fossil fuel industry funded climate and energy related research, has been signed by almost 1,000 academics from around the world, including IPCC authors and Nobel Prize winners. Last November, student activists from Climate Action Imperial College, Cambridge Climate Justice and Oxford Climate Justice joined students from across the US and Canada to demand FFR during a coordinated week of action. At Exeter, three protests have demanded an end to collaborations with Shell within a year. Last year, at the University of Cambridge, student occupations of the BP Institute resulted in its renaming. And across the Atlantic, Princeton University announced a dissociation from 90 fossil fuel companies including Exxon Mobil.

A group of student's from Cambridge protesting against BP. Various banners calling for Fossil Free Research are held up. One in the background reads "Liar, Liar, The Planet's on Fire"
Students from the University of Cambridge protesting the university’s association with oil giant BP back in 2022. The BP Institute research facility was renamed as a result (Image provided by Fossil Free Research)

The move from VU demonstrates to student activists across Europe just how possible FFR is. At too many universities, administrations have dug in their heels in support of a toxic industry by calling a FFR policy implausible. Universities often argue that collaboration is nuanced, so the text of guidelines is bound to be dangerously misinterpreted. Yet the VU’s new policy sets precise criteria for determining which companies must be cut off, what avenues of funding will be allowed to continue, and a short time frame within which to do so.

We must also be aware, however, of the shortcomings of the VU policy — it does not address funding outside of research, and ongoing projects will be allowed to finish — and continue to push for stronger and more effective policies in our home institutions. Students like us can learn from tactics that have worked at universities in the Netherlands and across Europe. We’ve learned that a diverse coalition is essential for swift cooperation. There was a remarkably quick turnaround between the first local op-ed criticising the VU’s links to Big Oil and the start of negotiations between students, staff and the administration. Climate scientists demonstrated the importance of ending all ties with the fossil fuel industry, backed up by recent IPCC publication. Staff across the institution, including members from Scientist Rebellion, engaged in stakeholder meetings to help the administration understand the logic behind cutting ties, how this could be done and what to watch out for. Students showed that radical change was demanded by the next generation of academics, organising training and planning actions, ensuring the all-important voice for the youth.

As students at universities that are meant to be preparing us for the future, we remain concerned about the undue influence of Big Oil on our schools. The decision of the VU may be a small step in the right direction, but it is an important one. We urge student activists across Europe to also push their schools to refuse to aid and abet the fossil fuel industry, and develop immediate plans to cut ties with the sector. It’s clearly possible, but if universities refuse to change, students and staff must come together and pressure, lobby, dissent, protest and occupy, to bring about a fossil free future.

To get involved with Fossil Free Research, visit our website at We can help you design and launch a campaign at your university to kick Big Oil off campus.

Author Bios:

Vedika Mandapati is an undergraduate student of Politics and International Relations at the University of Cambridge. She is an organiser with Cambridge Climate Justice and a freelance journalist with a focus on social justice.

Jonathan Leggett is a masters student of Global Environmental Change and Policy at the Vrije Universiteit. He is an environmental campaigner and action coordinator with Extinction Rebellion NL and Greenpeace NL, with an interest in creative, disruptive and justice-oriented actions.