Open Letter to Staff – A Call to Ethical Investment at UoS

Dear Staff and PG Researchers,

We are ‘Invest Positive UoS’ – a student led group asking the University of Southampton to commit to socially and environmentally responsible investment. Please read this message and find out why. Thank you!

There is now an overwhelming scientific consensus on both the threat posed by global climate change and the significant, driving role played by human activities in this process. The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas powered the industrialisation and advancement of our society but it is clear that our exploitation of these resources must now begin to come to an end. If we continue with business as usual we will be responsible for potentially catastrophic and irreversible climate change with implications for food security, human displacement and habitat and biodiversity loss.

Universities play a key role in the research that enables us to understand these risks and in developing the technologies that will help us to prevent and mitigate their impact. As such they also have a responsibility to take a proactive role in the transition to a sustainable, low carbon future.  It is essential that universities have transparent, socially responsible investment (SRI) strategies that are consistent with their research and sustainability objectives. Several universities in the UK have recently demonstrated their commitment to reducing global carbon emissions by pledging to restructure their financial endowments to exclude some or all fossil fuel companies. These include the Universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Oxford; fellow Russell Group members. Prominent commitments have also been made by Norway’s sovereign wealth fund and insurance giant AXA.

Ethical investment is not just about the money. The fossil fuel industry already holds far more reserves than can ever safely be burnt yet spends billions every year exploring for more in ever harsher locations. These companies are essentially betting against robust international action to avoid the worst effects of climate change (by restricting warming to below 2˚C) since such action would render these assets valueless. Public commitments to socially responsible investment are not intended or able to bankrupt these companies or lead to the obviously impractical immediate cessation of global fossil fuel use. Rather they serve to withdraw moral and academic cover from a fundamentally unethical business model and instead create space and public support for world leaders to act. Ethical financial strategies also free up university funds to invest positively; including in the clean energy technologies that will power our future. Ahead of vital international climate talks in Paris this December the need for unambiguous academic support for low carbon energy could not be greater.

This is an excellent time for the University to commit to socially responsible investment. From a recent freedom of information request:

FOI request 10621: “I have been given to understand that the fund in which the University had its endowment investment has been closed, so – with the exception of 4628 Royal Dutch Shell shares donated to the University and held to fund an endowment – all the University’s endowment capital is held as cash on bank deposit while a replacement fund for investment is found.”

These are difficult issues and we recognise that, while all fossil fuels are ultimately unsustainable and should not remain a long term feature of the University’s endowments, some are more ethically complex than others. We are therefore proposing that the University make a positive first step by pledging that the capital awaiting reinvestment will not be placed in any stocks or funds that include companies engaged in exploiting the most polluting and environmentally dangerous fossil fuel resources; namely coal, tar sands and Arctic drilling. We would also hope for a SRI strategy to exclude the arms industry or tobacco companies. Such a commitment would demonstrate that the University’s financial decision making is not distinct from its stated ambition, “to be recognised as the global leader in sustainability in the Higher Education sector”.

We would like to reassure you that we intend a positive and engaging campaign and will neither enter into nor condone violence, vandalism or abusive behaviour either at Southampton or elsewhere. We want to see a widespread conversation started among students, academics and other employees on the need for the University to publically uphold the highest standards of ethics and consistency in its investment strategy. This is a young campaign whose ideas will continue to develop. We appreciate that people may have other thoughts as to what does or does not constitute an ethical investment beyond fossil fuels and these should also be discussed. Please engage your colleagues with these issues and help us by disseminating this email and telling decision makers that you want ethical investment (the office of Sarah Pook, University Director of Finance may be reached at J.Shaw@southampton.ac.uk). This is the only unsolicited message we will be sending so please email us your ideas and let us know if you’d like to be kept updated. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter (@InvestPosUoS) and our blog. Please use your voice to help build the future that the students you support deserve.

Yours sincerely,

Invest Positive UoS

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FOI Requests

On the 8th May 2015 the University responded to two similar freedom of information (FOI) requests regarding its investment holdings. This information inspired the subsequent staff letter requesting support for socially and environmentally responsible investment. The original requests and their responses are reproduced below:

LS Ref – 10516: List of all third parties that are involved in the management of all trust and hedge funds in which the university has investments held.

“I have been given to understand that the fund in which the University had its endowment investment has been closed, so – with the exception of the Royal Dutch Shell shares which you may recall – all the University’s endowment capital is held as cash on bank deposit while a replacement fund for investment is found.  The University therefore currently has no third parties involved in the management of trust or hedge funds in which the University has investments.”

LS Ref – 10621: Under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, I am requesting a list of the companies the University currently invests in through its endowment funds, along with the amount invested in each company.

I am also requesting a list of the companies the University has invited on to the main campus who have operated in a “public” area of the university (including but not limited to; the Students Union, concourse, Garden Court, marquees set up for Careers Fairs, etc.) whether this is to sell a product (such as food), recruit students as customers or to work for that company. I would like this information for the past 5 years.

“From another FOI request, I have been given to understand that the fund in which the University had its endowment investment has been closed, so – with the exception of 4628 Royal Dutch Shell shares donated to the University and held to fund an endowment – all the University’s endowment capital is held as cash on bank deposit while a replacement fund for investment is found.

As regards companies invited onto the main campus – providing a full and accurate picture may not be possible at all – and certainly not within the cost/time limit (18 hours = £450 costed at £25/hour) set by the Freedom of Information Act. Rather than refusing this part of your request on cost/time grounds, could I ask you to reformulate it so that it covers what is most important to you without going over the limit?”

Welcome Message

Hi,

This is the first blog post from the Invest Positive UoS campaign.

We are a student led group at the University of Southampton asking for a commitment to the socially and environmentally responsible investment of the University’s endowments.

We are a brand new campaign which is both exciting and daunting and in the coming weeks and months we’ll be reaching out to build support among staff and fellow students for ethical investment.

We want to see greater transparency in the University’s financial decision making, especially with regards to how it invests your (our!) tuition fees. To begin with we will likely be focussing on seeking public assurances that existing capital will not be invested in the arms industry, tobacco companies or the most polluting and environmentally damaging fossil fuels. We will shortly be sending an open letter to University staff which will be posted here in a subsequent blog.

We actively welcome support, ideas and comments. Please get in touch with us by commenting below or on TwitterFacebook or by email (investpositiveuos@gmail.com).

Thank you.

Invest Positive UoS