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Universities’ wrong-headed investment decisions harm students

By John Slater - posted Tuesday, 6 December 2016


For years student activists on campuses across Australia have been campaigning for universities to divest from so-called unethical fossil fuel investments.

And they have been quite successful. In September, Queensland University of Technology joined the Australian National University, La Trobe University and the University of Sydney in committing to withdrawing all investments connected to the fossil fuel industries.

The idea behind the "fossil-free" movement is that univer­sities have long been at the forefront of progress and social justice, and should not be com­plicit in supporting or profiting from an ­industry that they claim is pushing Earth towards climate catastrophe.

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But while much is said about the moral duty of universities to invest responsibly for the benefit of Mother Earth, seldom mentioned is their legal obligation to manage funds in the best interests of their students.

The regulations governing QUT's $300 million external funds purse state that "investments shall be made at the most advantageous rate available" in order to support the university's strategic goals in education, ­research and community.

In other words, the fund exists to better the education of QUT's present and future students.

There are well-founded doubts about whether that end can be achieved to maximum effect while the fund shuns any investment in an ­industry worth $138 billion a year, or 8.5 per cent of our ­national economy.

On this score, QUT's last flirtation with divestment is a cautionary tale worth heeding. In 2008 the student-run QUT Guild's endowment lost almost 50 per cent of its net worth overnight when it attempted divestment from resource investments.

That spurning investment in one of our greatest sources of ­national wealth hurt the guild in the hip pocket should come as no surprise.

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Mining accounts for half of Australia's export earnings. Coal - described by some as the preferred energy source of Lucifer himself - netted us a tidy $40bn in exports last year alone. On the investing side, resource companies regularly feature among the ASX's best performing stocks and count for two of our 10 wealthiest companies.

With forecasts predicting that minerals and energy export earnings will increase by 6 per cent each year to 2020, it stretches credulity that a $300m investment fund could be left no worse off after washing its hands of one of the economy's most dynamic generators of wealth.

Given that at least some of QUT's investment funds are held in trust, the decision to divest ­raises serious questions concerning the university's duty to manage the fund with undivided loyalty to its beneficiaries - namely its students.

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This article was first published in The Australian.



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About the Author

John Slater is the Executive Director of the H R Nicholls Society.

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