UTS has agreed to raise ethical environmental concerns with a key technology partner linked to the controversial Adani coal mine project, after pressure from students.

Technology firm Siemens, which provides UTS students and staff with access to its hardware and software, is currently working on Adani’s Carmichael coal and rail project providing signalling systems.

In a meeting on Friday between UTS Enviro Collective, UTS Vice-Chancellor Attilla Brungs and other senior managers, the university committed to contacting Siemens’ chief executive Jeff Connolly directly as well as encouraging partner universities using the firm to follow suit.

Having agreed to three of four actions proposed by UTS Enviro Collective, convener Anna Thieben said students emerged optimistic from the meeting.  

“We thought they maybe would email Jeff Connolly but not go further than that and so, in some ways, we are happy with the result that we’ve got things to hold them to account,” Thieben told Central News.

The collective had also asked that the university collaborate on an open forum with students and staff to discuss the partnership and to publicly call out Adani, the latter proposal not being accepted.

Siemens has come under increased pressure from different groups and ethical investors since signing the contract with the controversial fossil fuel project in central Queensland two years ago.

The link between the university and Adani was recently drawn to Enviro Collective’s attention, with UTS’s i4.0 Engineering Lab engaging in a partnership with Siemens.

This is a key instance where we should be holding them accountable because they can tangibly make a difference.

The collective’s ‘Stop UTS Supporting Adani’ campaign calls for the university to uphold its commitment to climate change.

The campaign was launched just a week before UTS agreed to meet, during which time dozens of  emails were sent to UTS management, a petition acquired over 200 signatures and a social media campaign reached almost 12,000 people.

A UTS spokesperson said the university endeavoured to work with its partners towards a shared commitment and understanding of significant matters like climate change.

“The meeting noted that Siemens has committed to carbon neutrality by 2030, and that their former CEO expressed some regret about having entered into the Adani contract, but felt it now had a legal obligation to complete it,” a UTS spokesperson said in a statement to Central News.

“The university representatives agreed to continue to raise Siemens’ contract with Adani with Mr Connolly, to discuss the matter with the other Australian universities who have a relationship with Siemens, and to advocate publicly for a rapid transition to a low carbon economy in Australia.”

The statement added: “There was a discussion [at the meeting] on the university’s relationship with Siemens, which is primarily about providing UTS students and staff with access to Siemens’ hardware and software, and has nothing to do with mining. UTS believes the partnership brings a real benefit to its students and their future careers, and is something it doesn’t take lightly.”

NSW Premier with the UTS Vice-Chancellor and Siemens' CEO pictured at a table behind UTS, NSW Government and Siemens banner

UTS Vice-Chancellor, Siemens’ CEO Jeff Connolly and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian signing the 2019 agreement to provide universities with the software partnership. Source: UTS

Despite the commitment, the collective said they want to see tangible action in line with the university’s 2030 carbon neutral pledge to “decisive action to respond to the climate crisis with the full commitment of the university’s resources and strategic direction appropriate to the severity of the crisis”.

“Without holding them accountable, it’s empty words… [it’s] a PR stunt unless you put actions behind your words. And this is a key instance where we should be holding them accountable because they can tangibly make a difference,” Thieben said. 

UTS is not the only institution under scrutiny by Stop Adani activists and student environmental groups. The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, University of Queensland, University of Tasmania, University of South Australia, and Swinburne University of Technology are also partnered with Siemens on their Industry 4.0 Energy Testlabs. 

The Galilee Blockade, a sub-group of Stop Adani that specifically targets contractors, is the Australia-wide movement behind targeting universities to increase pressure on Siemens to walk away from its contract with Adani. The group stands in solidarity with the traditional custodians of the land in protecting the Galilee basin from coal and gas extraction.

“Siemens has partnerships with many of our prized Institutions – donating equipment to further the goals of students. However, whilst they provide opportunities on one hand they take away our future with the other,” Galilee Blockade states on its website.

It would be fantastic if there was a united voice from Australian institutions trying to persuade Siemens to step away from its contract.

Volunteer organiser for Galilee Blockade Louise Newley said the move from UTS is promising and will help to increase pressure on Siemens. 

“I think it’s very encouraging that [the university is] going to speak to Siemens. I understand that universities are very dependent on partnerships with businesses,” Newley said. 

“The commitments that they’re going to talk to other universities that are also in partnership is great news.

Social media image form Enviro Collective

Image from Enviro Collective’s ‘UTS Supports Adani’ social media campaign. Source: UTS Enviro Collective’s Facebook Page

“If they talk to the other universities, it would be fantastic if there was a united voice from Australian institutions trying to persuade Siemens to step away from its contract.”

The German company has been contracted to work on Adani’s Carmichael coal mine’s rail signalling project, contributing to the mine’s potential environmental damage to the Great Barrier Reef, the site’s groundwater and carbon emissions.

Activists have questioned Siemens claims that “sustainability is an integral part of our business” as the company has failed to withdraw from its contract with the mining giant, despite Adani breaching environmental protection law five times.

Galilee Blockade has been lobbying for the university to increase pressure on Siemens for the past year, however, the recent move to involve Enviro Collective and its stakeholders proved vital in getting management on board. 

“It is amazing what UTS collective has stepped up and done,” Newley said. 

“Universities don’t care very much about Galilee Blockade but they do care about their students.”

Friday’s closed meeting was attended by Vice-Chancellor Attila Brungs, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education and Students) Shirley Alexander, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Resources) Partick Woods, and Enviro Collective conveners Damien Nguyen and Anna Thieben.

The collective are also planning to pass a motion at the upcoming SRC meeting to condemn the Adani Carmichael coal mine and call for the university to agree to their final demand to publicly stand in opposition to Adani and the Carmichael Coal mine.

Both UTS and Enviro Collective agreed the meeting highlighted the lack of communication between management and the student body on the breadth of university initiatives to address the climate emergency.

One of the outcomes was an agreement the university would provide the collective with more information on the extensive range of climate activities and initiatives that the university and its staff are engaged in, and that the collective can distribute and make the broader student body aware of.

Discussions also included how students and the collective can increase involvement in UTS climate and environmental action activities.

“There was a pretty big disconnect with like what we want as students, which is them to actually be accountable to the companies that they’re partnering with, and what they think students want, which is not to be depressed,” said Thieben.

Main photo of UTS Enviro Collective is supplied.