Concerns have been raised by CUSU about the ethical record of some companies that receive investment funding from the University of Cambridge.

Late in March, CUSU’s Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) campaign succeeded in releasing information from the University about the recipients of its investment funding.

For a long time, the University had refused to disclose this information to CUSU, claiming that its commercial interests would be prejudiced by doing so. The legality of this claim was challenged by CUSU earlier this year.

The data revealed that University funds are being used to support companies whose stances on ethical issues have been subject to doubt. Amongst others, the list of companies receiving investment from share indices supported by the University includes Rio Tinto Group, which has been criticized by a British charity for alleged human rights violations, Royal Dutch Shell, which Amnesty International UK accuses of committing human rights abuses in Nigeria, and BAE Systems, which has sold arms to the governments of Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia.

Bryony Hopkinshaw, the CUSU SRI Officer, claims that students are uncomfortable with their tuition fees being invested in companies whose commitment to human rights and the environment has been called into question. "My experience is that many students are very concerned about the University’s investments," she said. "They are interested in the destination of their tuition fees, and are shocked that the University is allowed to invest in companies that commit human rights abuses."

More than 100 demonstrators attended protests against unethical investment in March of last year, and an independent survey of students showed that more than 50% were in favour of divestment from arms companies. Campaigners have already been successful in persuading some Colleges to divest from companies that are linked to ethically questionable practices.

Both Murray Edwards and St Catharine’s Colleges no longer support companies that help to support the Sudanese government without benefiting the Sudanese population, and whose business practices may be contributing to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Pembroke College sold its shares in arms companies some years ago.

The University, however, has defended its investment policy, stating that, since investments are chiefly made through index funds, its input into the selection of specific securities is minimal.

A spokesman said: "The University holds much of its exposure to equity markets through index funds, index futures or exchange traded funds with the same purpose – funds invested to track the performance of the stock market indices by holding passively the securities in the index, in the same proportions as the index. Such index funds or futures are held to gain broad equity investment at minimal cost.

"Individual securities are not selected by the University or the index fund manager, but are determined by the constituents of the particular stock market index. Inevitably, the University has indirect exposure to those companies making up those stock market indices."

The University’s official policy on ethical investing, which was introduced in July of last year, states that the prime objective of investments is to maximise returns in order to maintain the University’s financial stability. It also notes, however, that ethical considerations may, in some cases, outweigh this.

CUSU’s proposed solution to the issue is to invest solely in funds with ethical investment policies, such as the Jupiter Ecology Fund, which invests in ethical businesses and has recently enjoyed higher growth than standard indices without a specific ethics policy.

"Running [a university] is by no means incompatible with investing ethically," said CUSU’s SRI Officer.