Cherwell - Oxford University's Independent Student Newspaper since 1920

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University refuses to reveal investments

University says investments now “exempt from disclosure”
Joe King on Saturday 20th November 2010
Photograph: Perry French
Cherwell can reveal that the University refuses to disclose which funds it has investments in despite releasing this information under the Freedom of Information Act in 2008.

When asked which funds Oxford University Endowment Management (OUEM) invests in by Cherwell on 12th October, the University's response stated that disclosure would "breach the confidentiality provisions of a number of agreements" between OUEM and fund management companies "and would therefore be likely to prejudice their commercial interests."

Information on University investments was previously obtained by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) under the Freedom of Information Act in June 2008.

Their figures showed that the University invests over £6 million in UK and US arms companies, comprising about 1% of the University's total investment.

Oxford University and its colleges collectively invest over £2 billion. The decision made by the University to now consider the information "exempt from disclosure" has raised concerns over the lack of transparency in the investments which support the University's teaching, research, and related activities, including bursaries.

"Staff, students and the wider public have a right to know where the University money is invested," said CAAT representative Abi Haque. "The information is commonly available at other universities and there should be no reason that transparency should be detrimental to Oxford University's interests."

Haque noted that other universities, such as SOAS, Bristol and Goldsmiths University of London have adopted "more transparent ethical investment policies."

"It is difficult to imagine why Oxford University appears to be shrouding investment funds in secrecy unless funds have been invested in companies that could be considered dubious."

William Liew, Deputy Finance Director for the Bristol University said, "We are open to give information out about our investments under the Freedom of Information; it's public information and we have nothing to hide."

Rachel Dedman, ex-president of Oxford RAG, said she felt "strongly" that Oxford University should adopt a more transparent policy on the issue of investment.

"All Oxford students are lifelong representatives of the university as alumni, and should therefore all have the right to know now how the university has invested its money, and have the opportunity to say if they do not agree."

"Socially responsible investment should be a long-term goal for the University."

Abi Haque noted that when CAAT issued FOI requests in October 2008, Oxford was "more challenging" than other universities to get the information from.

"It took a significantly longer amount of the time for them to reveal which funds they invested in. They appeared extremely cautious. I would say this was because they had invested in companies people don't find particularly savoury."

Oxford University Endowment Management is an investment office set up in 2007 to manage the University's investment assets.

The University has said that although there is "a public interest in knowing how publicly funded bodies invest their money," the money invested by OUEM are "not public funds and so the interest in knowing how these are invested is substantially weaker."

"We believe that the weak public interest in disclosure is outweighed by... [our ability] to secure a good return on its investments."

However Tim Davies, an Oriel graduate who now runs an independent research and consultancy organisation to promote social justice, thinks this justification is "misguided".

Davies thinks that OUEM should be transparent about the source of its funds and investment profits because it is "investing on behalf of a public body".

In February this year, the University's Socially Responsible Investment Review Committee released documents saying that potentially providing arms to illegal regimes is not a "sufficiently compelling" reason to cease investment in weapons.

Yet Tim Davies commented, "the committee has failed to take into account University feeling".

"This is the belief that arms investments, amongst others, are wholly incompatible with the progressive educational goals of a global leading University."

The Oxford Socially Responsible Investment Campaign said that FOI requests made in 2006 show that University also invests in funds supporting "tobacco sales, manufacture of instruments of torture, and widespread environmental degradation."

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