Universities struggle to come clean

Following active student campaigning a couple of UK universities have now agreed to look into invest

In June this site has featured the voices of many students at University College London (UCL) – including my own - who were overjoyed with their university’s decision to look into developing an ethical investment policy.

Almost six month down the line not much has happened. Students and alumni have had an informal meeting with Lord Joel Joffe and UCL alumnus Edwin Glasgow, QC, during which campaigners presented their proposal for an ethical investment policy for UCL.

But UCL’s leadership has not made the timetable for designing and implementing the policy clear. Students and alumni are not getting the formal consultative role in this process they demand and deserve. Worse still: UCL keeps clinging on to its £925,600 worth of shares in arms trader Cobham PLC.

How serious is UCL about investing ethically if it does not divest a meagre 0.6% of its overall investment from business that kills?

UCL is not the only university, which is slow following up on its new commitment to come clean. In March 2006 Student Direct, Manchester’s University Students newspaper, reported a University spokesman had confirmed the university was re-considering its position on their arms investments.

A year and a half later less than a quarter of the arms shares have been sold off. Manchester is still holding around £1m pounds worth of shares in arms companies, including BAE Systems and Rolls Royce.

Now students have been given the impression that they might see a divestment from BAE Systems. But campaigners say that they also have been told that divestment from Rolls Royce will not be automatic. Is the Manchester University leadership considering keeping their shares in Rolls Royce, the world’s 16th largest arms producer by military revenue?

Students at Nottingham University had to battle it out with the university authorities simply to receive information on the way their university invests. According to student campaigners their Director of Finance initially did not respond to a Freedom of Information request. Only when students organized a letter and e-mail campaign did the university release the information that it has a passively managed account with Barclays Global Investors (BGI). When describing their investment philosophy on their website BGI does not mention ethical criteria.

It’s not all bad news: The University of St. Andrews is a shining example for clean investment at British Universities. On 29 June their university court passed a solid ethical investment policy. As part of the policy, St. Andrews established an ethical advisory committee, which will review universities investments from an ethical point on a regular basis. St. Andrews student and alumni are represented on this committee.

Harry Giles, an ethical investment campaigner at St. Andrews, told me: "Once the university saw just how strong-minded and strongly-backed we were it took us seriously, and from then on has been really good at engaging with us." The key to St. Andrew's success seems to be down to the willingness of the university to listen to students concerns and to actively engage them in the process of developing an ethical investment policy.

This seems to be in stark contrast to other universities. For example Manchester, where students' best chance to be consulted is to show up unexpectedly at finance committee meetings and hope that the famous British politeness will get them into the meeting and a cup of tea. Or at UCL, where Provost Malcolm Grant accused students campaigning for ethical investment of leading a campaign against UCL in a meeting in May.

On 24 November at a conference organized by Campaign Against Arms Trade, (CAAT) student campaigners from all over the UK had a spontaneous fringe meeting to share their experiences and discuss future plans and strategies for getting their university to come clean on investment. It was truly inspiring to meet all these other dedicated students campaigners.

To those universities out there who still think students will forget about the arms shares just because the university leadership has made a very vague commitment to ethical investment or made it difficult to obtain information: Think again! We won’t go away!

And personally, as a UCL student, I hope that the UCL Council - which meets again on 5 December - will take a genuine step to follow through with its commitment on ethical investment and decide to ditch the disgraceful arms shares!