Campaigners from University College London (UCL) were celebrating over the new year at the news that UCL has finally implemented an Ethical Investment (EI) policy – a just reward after over two years hard campaigning by disarmUCL, the coalition of campaigning organisations including UCL People & Planet, UCL Stop the War & UCL Amnesty, who have worked together to bring about ethical investment at UCL. None of us think the policy – available here – is anywhere near as good as it could be, since it does not rule out investment in the arms trade, does not guarantee equal student involvement on the committee set up to deal with EI concerns, and has no explicit role for positive investment (of which more later) – but it is still a great success.
Perhaps the most obvious reason to campaign for EI at your university is that students have a right to say how their university’s money – which may include their tuition fees – is spent. Any university investment in the arms trade makes all students at the particular university complicit in investment in a sector which depends on war & murder to be financially viable. And as CAAT‘s (Campaign Against The Arms Trade) research has shown, there is a very good chance that your university invests in the arms trade – find out here.
No-one is suggesting that the arms trade has a monopoly on unethical practice – nor is it unfortunately the only unethical & unsustainable sector that UK universities invest in. Being involved in people & planet campaigns makes us aware, for example, of corporate malpractice and the contribution of energy companies to causing runaway climate change. To tackle the arms trade – the mission of CAAT for example – while to ignore Nestle, GlaxoSmithKline, Anglo American, RBS or E-ON, fails to make EI a holistic campaign with an effective aim of fighting climate change & poverty across the world. This is a very good reason why EI campaigning at universities urgently need greater involvement from people & planet groups, with our approach of tackling the root causes of poverty & injustice. The fact that P&P as a national organisation no longer has the capacity to give office support for EI campaigns need not be seen as a problem – campaigns can be set up which tailor to the specifics of your own university and coalitions can be formed with many diverse groups which are active in your area. EI campaigners have therefore an incredible freedom to run the campaign that they want to. For a good introduction into setting up a campaign, see for example Sara Hall’s article for New Statesman or the excellent EI wiki.
Positive investment is in my view the aspect of EI campaigning that makes it into a holistic approach to tackling poverty, injustice & climate change. Positive investment is not merely ruling out investment in a sector such as arms trade or tobacco – negative screening – but actively seeking out investment in sectors which universities believe fit in with their ethos & mission. This is one way in which smaller but financially successful (and more importantly strategically crucial) sectors can be driven & popularised. We should not only be thinking about divestment from E-On & RBS – because we don’t want our universities driving climate change – but also positive investment in clean renewable energy suppliers, which actually seek to tackle the issues at hand. To chase 80% cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, we need an urgent switch to a green sustainable economy. We cannot be satisfied with merely removing the stain on our universities’ characters by divestment from particularly abhorrent trades – this may make us feel better but will enact little long-term change. But if universities can use their investments to support the brilliant research they are conducting into climate change & strategies for tackling it – for example UCL’s leading Environment Institute – we can actually help shape the future rather than running single issue & potentially ineffective campaigns. Get on board with EI campaigning – take heart from its successes but also use your involvement to take it to the next, urgently needed, level.