A more ethical University – an interview with Mike Allwright of Invest Positive UoS
He was very diplomatic
Mike Allwright, the co-ordinator of Invest Positive UoS, agreed to have an interview with me discussing the University’s investments in ‘unethical’ industries. The following interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
So, Mike. What is Invest Positive?
Invest Positive is a student-led campaign for a more ethical investment of the University’s endowment funds. We believe the University has a responsibility to ethically invest its savings, whether it’s from tuition fees or from any other income.
And what exactly is it you do, Mike?
Well, I’m a co-founder and the general co-ordinator. So I run the Facebook group and organise the meetings, along with Green Action – the society that we grew out of. I’m also often the one who reaches out, and makes those contacts with other groups who might be interested – whether in the University, or the staff, who are all very supportive.
Can you give name any successes you’ve had so far in your campaign?
Well… this is the tricky bit. [Laughter] Have you heard of Fossil Free?
Yes. [Fossil Free was a campaign, also led by students, trying to get the University to move to clean energy. They staged numerous protests on campus against the University of Southampton’s partnerships with, and investments in the fossil fuel industries.]
Well, we grew out of them to a degree. The Uni isn’t big on student protests, and they kind of freaked out when we tried protesting on campus. We actually had security when we had a stall on the concourse! There were more security guards than there were of us! So Invest Positive grew out of the Fossil Free campaign, as a rebranding, a renaming of sorts, and that was our first success – finding a name that could get us through that initial opposition. When we did launch, we found out from a freedom of information request that the University only had cash – they were between investments. They only invest in third party administrated mixed funds, rather than directly managing their own things…
Like a hedge fund?
Sort of, yeah. The University hands over the funds to a bank, or an administrator, with broad instructions as to how they want it invested. And because they were between investments, it was all we could do to start pressuring the Uni to invest it wisely. When we started, we had the support of eleven different student groups, and fifteen members of staff, and they all signed a letter to the University supporting our campaign. So… getting started, getting that initial support, was probably our second success. In terms of outcomes, so far, the University is still making a decision about their investments. They have been very… politely positive to us so far. Possibly because we’ve been a bit nicer, and more polite than we were under the Fossil Free campaign! But yeah, it’s still all in discussion at the moment. They’ve been very warm and responsive so far, but the big news has yet to come.
So if the Uni has been fairly open to your suggestions, have you experienced much pushback from other groups?
Well, we’ve got the Student Union on board, but some groups… well, engineering, for example. When we ask the Uni not to invest in coal, tar sands, arctic drilling, or in arms trading, defence, whatever you want to call it, some engineering students were not very positive about that at all. The impression was, these companies are good employers, these companies are where I want to work, and they feel that the University’s decision could have a big impact on their future at these places.
And do you think the University’s lack of investments in these companies would negatively affect their job prospects?
Well, I don’t think it does. In this instance, we aren’t talking about who the University does research for, who comes to careers fairs, we were literally talking about how the University invests its’ own central pot of money. A substantial chunk of which is the tuition fees, which come from the student community. We feel that the university has a responsibility to its students to invest wisely – as well as a responsibility to society, particularly in light of its’ own research into things like fossil fuels. I mean, there’s as much research about climate change coming from here as anywhere else, so we feel the University should really start to… well, put their money where their mouth is. It’s not even a large amount of money – in the grand scheme of things, the amount of money invested in these industries is quite small. But it’s about the ethical decision to invest, living up to their own research. But I can understand the nervousness on the part of some students, the thinking that if the University was seen to do anything that could be perceived as critical of the ethics of these companies, that it could jeopardise the work-relationship and their job prospects in particular. After all, it is a big engineering university.
So you don’t believe that’s true?
No, I don’t believe that’s true. I think that engineering students here are excellently trained, they’ll be very competitive in the marketplace, and I think it’s up to them as individuals who they want to work for. The Universities choice of investment doesn’t impact the safety of their future, as far as I can see, it’s up to the ethics of the individual where they want to work.
That’s a very diplomatic response. Moving on! I’ve asked a few other friends if they’re aware of the University investing in the oil, arms trades and so on, and every one of them have been surprised, and in some cases a little upset that their fees are potentially going there. Do you believe the University has a responsibility to its students to be more transparent about the investment of its funds?
Absolutely! It’s one of the things we’d really like. Regardless of what the Uni is or isn’t investing in right now, they don’t have a publicly available investment policy. So one of the things we want, regardless of the outcome of the current debates, is for the Uni to publically release their reasons on who they’re investing in and why. That way, if they are investing in a more controversial business, people who may disagree have a right to know that, and the University can make a more defensible case for themselves. Equally, if they’re not investing in something, and they say why not, that is a powerful political statement, and it gives students something to think about. What I don’t think is acceptable, is investing in something unethical and hoping no one notices. Now especially, when you’ve got other universities like Warwick, or Sheffield, who are dropping their investments in coal, in tar sands. And they’ve had some very positive national media coverage from the media, like The Guardian, and other, more niche media outlets…
Like The Tab.
Yeah, like The Tab. [Laughs] But publicly announcing their investments, and the reasoning behind it, is a policy that has been very well received in all the Unis that have done it.
So, if any students wanted to help support you, how would they go about it? Are you running any campaigns or events?
Yes! First off, if they want to join the Facebook group to keep in touch, that’d be great. We’re actually running an event on campus from Monday this week [7th March to 11th March]. We have a stall on the concourse for SUSU’s ‘Change Your World Week’, where lots of different groups are running sustainability related events. We’re running a ‘Green Heart’ campaign there as Invest Positive, like the Climate Coalition did, where students sign these green hearts asking the Uni to sell the shares in tar sands they were given by Shell, as a petition. So that’s a good way to get started.
Might swing by at some point then. Good luck with the campaign Mike!
Cheers Joe. Hope to see you at the stall next week!
A previous article from The Soton Tab on the University’s investments in Shell can be found here.