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Apologies for the rather dry style - this is a direct extract from a dissertation on SRI!


Background

Oxford University is the oldest higher education institution in the UK. It is also one of the wealthiest, with an endowment valued at £558 million as of July 31st 2005 (Oxford University 2006a), which is managed separately from the individual College investments. External fund managers are overseen by the Investments Committee, which reports to University Council, the University’s managing body.


History of SRI at Oxford

There may well have been earlier debates on SRI at Oxford University, but the current wave of interest – which has culminated in the creation of an SRI Committee – can be traced back at least to 2000/2001. In this academic year, partially inspired by the success of the Ethics for USS campaign and the tentative adoption of SRI principles by the University of East Anglia and Selwyn College, Cambridge, members of the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) Ethics Committee put together a campaigning guide and template proposal for students wishing to push for SRI policies in their own Colleges. With support from students from across the campus and a few key academics, they also put pressure on the central University administration by raising the issue of SRI at the Joint Consultative Committee (JCC, the main formal point of contact between the University and OUSU). Following much discussion at the JCC and Investment Committee, in July 2004 “Council agreed to endorse the approach contained within the Good Corporation Charter [GCC]”; fund managers were to be instructed to take action in line with this decision (OUSU 2004). The GCC is a set of voluntary Corporate Responsibility principles (GoodCorporation 2006); in effect, the University was agreeing to a loose form of engagement with companies via its fund managers.

By 2004, it was clear that student campaigners (organised again around OUSU and the Ethics Committee) felt that this approach was ineffective, and wished the University to adopt a more rigorous SRI policy. A proposal was submitted to JCC in November 2004 which claimed that the GCC “omits to cover a number of fundamental areas” including “the impacts of a corporation’s activities upon third parties”; there was “no process in place to either monitor or assure the effectiveness of the University’s current approach”, no mechanism for the University’s investments to “tend away from corporations whose actions it finds unacceptable”, and no provision for the University to “pursue active investment and vote against a company's board when its actions are inconsistent with the University's ethical commitments” (OUSU 2004). Whilst the JCC had limited ability to act on this proposal, it sparked off a lively series of communications between OUSU and the University’s Investments Committee; this included statements from Sir Alan Budd, the Chair of the latter body, in which he pointed out the difficulty of being a transparent or active shareholder when using tracker funds and the limits of his Committee’s remit when it came to making ethical decisions (Budd 2005).


The 2005/2006 Campaign

The start of this academic year saw a rise in the profile of the campaign. A survey by Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT 2005), revealing that at least six Oxford colleges had significant holdings in arms companies, was used by on-campus campaigners to garner support for SRI. It is interesting to note that whilst communications between OUSU’s Ethics Committee and the University continued to discuss SRI in the broadest sense, the publicity directed at students was focused on a few key, emotive issues: the arms trade, oppressive regimes, and environmental destruction. A leaflet distributed by the campaign asked “What’s your college got its cash in?” above a picture of children fleeing from a tank. These recruitment tactics seemed to work; a student petition gathered over 5000 signatures in the first few weeks of Hilary Term, and a February 13th meeting of University Council where an SRI proposal paper from OUSU (OUSU 2006) was originally scheduled for discussion but then dropped from the agenda was accompanied by a noisy student protest outside. An alternative barometer of a segment of on-campus opinion is provided by Clark et al. (2006), who found a much greater interest in SRI amongst Oxford Geography undergraduates than amongst pension fund trustees. A debate on the issue in the Oxford Magazine led to the publication of an article by Robert Barrington, a member of F&C Asset Management’s SRI team, in which he explained how the University could adopt SRI principles at very little cost by working to influence their existing fund managers (Barrington 2006).

The University administration seemed less enthusiastic than the students. Council declined to consider OUSU’s SRI proposal directly, instead passing it to an unpublicised working group of University officials for discussion without student representation. The report of this working group – which essentially claimed that the University was already doing all that it could on SRI – was eventually passed to Council on April 24th 2006 and approved; OUSU’s original detailed proposal was not considered. The decision was then taken at a charged Ethics Committee meeting (at which I was present) to instead take the proposal to Congregation, the University’s highest decision-making body - a gathering of Fellows from across the Colleges, with the power to overrule Council if necessary. The campaign then switched its tactics, targeting Fellows to gather support for a formal Resolution; when the requisite 30 signatures were gained from academics, and the proposal duly tabled for 30th May 2006, Council decided – in contrast to its earlier position on SRI - to accept the motion rather than let it go to a vote at Congregation.

In essence, by accepting the proposal the University agreed to:

• Take action to develop a coherent SRI policy, using advice from independent SRI consultants • Establish a Committee on Socially Responsible Investment • Publish details of its investments and periodically report on its SRI progress

Further discussions between the University and OUSU determined that the Committee should consist of one student representative, two academics (drawn from the list of Fellows who signed the Resolution), and two members of the administration. The Committee is due to first meet in October 2006, to decide its exact role and remit; quite how Oxford’s SRI policy develops from here will depend on its deliberations.

Thoughts and Conclusions

Although the SRI proposal would not have gathered the support it did from students and Fellows without compelling arguments for its adoption, in the final analysis it seems to have been accepted by University Council for reasons of expediency rather than a wholehearted embracing of its position by the administration. The final form of the Policy therefore lies very much in the hands of the new Committee. The balance of power on this body seems to lie with SRI advocates, and that despite alleged antipathy to the idea of SRI amongst senior members of the administration, a fairly robust policy could be produced. However, if it is to be effective, consistent, and acceptable to the University administration, it will require extremely careful consideration, particularly as such a policy could also set an important national benchmark. Only one other of the UK’s 50 wealthiest universities (Edinburgh) has an SRI Committee.

References

Apologies for the lack of proper referencing here - this will be completed as soon as the author gets a chance!

Interviews with staff and student campaigners; Batchelor (2006); Budd (2005); The Oxford Student (2006); Oxford University (2006a, 2006b, 2006c); Oxford University Gazette (2006); OUSU (2001, 2004, 2005a, 2005b, 2006); emails to and from student activists throughout the 2005/2006 campaign; the author's own involvement in the campaign.

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