Focus on divestment campaigns: The Socially Responsible Investment Campaign at Cambridge University: a critique


In June 2011, I was one of four candidates to be elected as Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) Officers for the Cambridge University Student Union. By October 2011 I had resigned. In the intervening time I had extensively researched SRI at Cambridge University and found both the politics and economics underlying the campaign extremely problematic. SRI constitutes a form of ethical investment banking, involving the positive and negative screening of companies upon a series of ethical criteria, such as environmental policy, labour practices and human rights. It involves categorising multinational corporations as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and using shareholder pressure to reform ‘bad’ corporations, positing a unity of ethical interests and the maximisation of profit; only in extreme cases is outright divestment considered. SRI represents a burgeoning financial market, with £9.5 billion pounds invested in green and ethical retail funds in the UK in 2009, representing a five-fold increase in ten years.[1]

Cambridge University does not have an SRI policy and it is notoriously difficult to force it to open its books; numerous FoI requests have been rejected.[2] However, it is involved in close, mutually profitable relationships with many large corporations; for example, the University has received large quantities of funding from BP which wishes to assert its research agenda and benefit from the ‘social license to operate’ that association with educational institutions offers them.[3] The BP Institute in Cambridge, established in 2000 with £25 million from BP, focuses on research into underground reservoirs of oil and Carbon Capture and Storage.

The relationship between Cambridge University and unethical corporations represents a deeply symbiotic and ethically ambiguous relationship. This reflects tensions within the aims of institution between the pursuit of education and the pursuit of profit; while ‘The University's mission is “to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence”. All the resources of the University are ultimately applied for this charitable purpose’,[4] simultaneously ‘The primary fiduciary responsibility of the Council… is to maximize the financial return on those resources’,[5] Within the University, the latter is prioritised in order to facilitate the former; no conflict of interests is perceived between the two.[6]

The SRI Campaign has attempted to intervene in this relationship by framing the benefits of SRI in terms of the profit-driven motives of the University. SRI is simultaneously presented as profitable in its own terms, as ethical capitalism expands, and an important risk management strategy to avoid negative publicity and protect the ‘brand’ of Cambridge University, particularly in light of the large sums of money the University receives from alumni. Engagement with the student body through grassroots action is primarily utilised as a way of applying pressure upon the University to act in accordance with student opinion, and is strongly framed in terms of market logic, with a survey asking respondents if ‘in extreme circumstances the university should place ethical considerations above maximising profit’.[7] The desire to appear reasonable within the terms of an institution that has demonstrated no intent to change its practices has resulted in a campaign stalemate.

In light of the increasing ideological justification of economic necessity in public discourse following the 2008 financial crisis and the coalition government’s cuts agenda, ethics based upon market logic can no longer be sustained; investment in green and ethical retail funds fell by £2 billion in 2008. In January 2011, the SRI Campaign responded to the revelation that the University received funding from a number of governmental military and intelligence organisations[8] with the statement that ‘While personally we disagree with the University's acceptance of funding from these defence organisations, in the current climate, particularly with the imminent increase of tuition fees, it would be irresponsible of the University to turn down sources of income’.[9] The logic of maximisation of profit within the University, forced to extremes by deep education cuts and tuition fee increases, has implicitly become a supreme value for the SRI Campaign, while ethical arguments have been relegated to the realm of personal opinions. This is symptomatic of the approach of the SRI Campaign from its inception. I left the SRI Campaign because it refuses to and is incapable of critiquing the market-driven ideology of unethical corporations and University investment, which are inherently linked to the root causes of the financial crisis and government cuts; it is therefore incapable of taking effective action against the University or the corporations that it funds.

1] Experts in Responsible Investment Solutions:
[2] 18 out of 29 Cambridge colleges for which information is available invest in BP, Shell or RBS.

[3] Platform have considered this in the context of the cultural institutions of London in their 2010 report License to Spill:
[4] ‘Statement of Investment Responsibility: Notice’ in The Cambridge University Reporter, 20 July 2009.

[5] Ibid

[6] Cambridge University is a charity. Under Charities’ Law it is obligated to maximise returns, but the Charities’ Commission has found ethical investment to be in line with this imperative because the image of a charity in the eyes of its members is seen as fundamental to the accomplishment of its aims.

[7] Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) proposal for the University of Cambridge, February 2009.

[8] The US Army donated £212,000, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) donated £119,000 and the American Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) donated £67,000.

[9] ‘Black-ops, armies and spies: Cambridge University funding in the spotlight again’ in The Cambridge Student, 27th January 2011.