When will Cambridge be a responsible investor?

JIA HUI LEE, CUSU Education Officer, thinks we should take our responsibility more seriously.

ACBELA Borys CUSU Dmitry Firtash responsible investment tax evasion vice-chancellor

What if your biochemistry lecturer’s salary was paid by money from Gazprom? Can the lecturer also teach about alternatives to using fossil fuels? What if the aims of your research lab were being determined by a pharmaceutical company? And what if the University is making money by having hundreds of millions of pounds invested in in tax-avoiding companies like Tesco?

These, among other questions, have been raised by students but we have been constantly met with resounding silence from the University.

This week the CUSU Socially Responsible Investment Officers will for another year make the case to the University for incorporating environmental, social and governmental (ESG) concerns into their investment policy. At stake is the academic freedom to produce objective research and the alignment of the University’s investment practice with its mission to educate and contribute to society.

dmitry

Dmitry Firtash, who has donated £5.4m to the University and is currently being indicted by US authorities on bribery and corruption charges

Despite extensive research and growing evidence internationally that responsible investment practices do not jeopardise profits (although since when did profits determine the actions of a public institution?), arguments that encourage the University to practice responsible investment will certainly fall on deaf ears again.

For another year, the potential for Cambridge to take the lead on investing its endowment in a positively impactful way (in green technology, for example) will continue to fade as the University of Oxford, Edinburgh and Harvard beat Cambridge at committing to frameworks such as the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment, UNPRI.

Can students really still rely on the committee that oversees the benefactions and investment policy of the University to make responsible decisions? Dubiously named the Advisory Committee for Benefactions, External and Legal Affairs (ACBELA), the committee approved the University’s acceptance of millions of pounds from Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian billionaire who was arrested in March and who is currently being indicted by US authorities on bribery and corruption charges.

The Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz (or Borys), who is also the Chair of ACBELA, not very long ago delivered the Richard Larkins Oration at Monash University, in which he committed Cambridge to the key role of “reducing poverty and its impacts”. Many development organisations recognise that exploitative labour practices and badly managed extraction of natural resources are key contributors to poverty. Borys, however, seems only willing to commit to reducing poverty so long as it does not impede on how the University profits from environmental and labour exploitation.

Unlike peer institutions (University of St. Andrew’s, Oxford, Edinburgh) that make their investment information freely available to students, Cambridge has repeatedly refused requests for information about its investments. The University’s secrecy contrasts with its colleges, who openly provide details of their investments when asked to do so under the FOI Act.

ethical investment

When asked how students can be sure that a University that aims to research ways to reduce poverty and tackle climate change is not investing in companies that potentially compromise these aims, the ACBELA committee assured students to trust in their decisions.

I do not have much faith, nor do I have any trust, in a Committee – chaired by the Vice Chancellor, no less – that collectively agrees to accept money from a corrupt Ukrainian businessman. Neither do many students, who through the group called Positive Investment Cambridge, have tried to engage with the University on issues of socially responsible investment.

Despite months of active engagement and thorough research about the promise of an explicit framework through which the University can invest responsibly, the University merely thanked student representatives for their contributions, and then waved them and their proposals away. I am confident that this year will be no different.

Cambridge already lags behind other universities that have committed to responsible investing practices. In the last year, as a result of student action, Edinburgh University and Harvard signed on to the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment. The UNPRI is an international framework that ensures institutional investors have review and oversight mechanisms for sustainable investment.

Now, students at Harvard and Edinburgh University can start relying on the UNPRI to hold their universities accountable and to ensure that environmental, social and governmental concerns are factored into how their endowments are invested.

But students at Cambridge will just have to get by with trust…

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Jia Hui Lee will soon be a University of Cambridge alumnus who will not donate to the University or the College until they become responsible investors.

For more information about Positive Investment Cambridge and resources on responsible investment, please visit http://positiveinvestment.wordpress.com/

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