After being informed that a third of accommodation fees, which have risen by more than 20% in the last three years, will go into “capital and borrowing”, students at Durham demanded to know what exactly the University is investing in.
A Freedom of Information request revealed that in the last quarter of 2014, Durham University – through their investment manager at Sarasin & Partners – invested in a range of unsavoury companies. £38,756 went to Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defence contractor. Another £391,116 was invested in the United Technologies Corporation, a corporation that develops missile systems among other things. More than £1.2 million was invested in gas, oil and petroleum companies including BP PLC – the company responsible for one of the largest oil spills in history. A further £808,560 was invested in Vodafone Group PLC, £197,565 in Amazon.com INC and £139,179 in Daily Mail and General Trust PLC. The investment portfolio for the last quarter of 2014, adds up to a grand total of £35,693,626.
The truth about the university’s investments is nothing short of outrageous. It is indicative of a shift from investing in students, to exploiting them to make a profit by using the money they pay in accommodation fees, to invest in companies that negatively impact society. Unfortunately, Durham University is by no means the only university that is doing this. With the lack of public funds due to cuts and privatisations, universities across the UK are ever more run as businesses geared towards making a profit. Fundamentally, this is a product of capitalism, a system under which cuts and privatisations are inevitable.
The current job climate means that more people are going to university than ever before. Nowadays, many people who attend university do so in the hope that it will make getting a job – and hence surviving in the current economic climate – easier. Universities are taking advantage of this state of affairs and treating the money that they get from students almost as a given. There is very little transparency from most universities as to where the money paid by students goes. This makes it more or less impossible for students to factor into their choice of educational institution what sort of corporations said institution is investing in. Students attending university, perhaps even with the dream of helping make the world a better place, are being forced to support companies that, in turn, are destroying the world. Students are being exploited; demonstrating another inevitable consequence of capitalism – human beings being treated as statistics and hence, an economic unit.
In theory universities, as academic institutions, ought to be unbiased. However, their support of certain companies, by way of investment, goes completely against this. It would be naïve to suppose that the relationship between the two was purely investment orientated. In as much as their investment relationship allows universities to have influence over big businesses, the opposite is also true. It is disheartening to think that such companies are able to have influence – directly or indirectly – over universities. Academic institutions, headed by some of the most academically intelligent people in the world, ought really to be run with the aim of producing free thinking, well educated individuals that are able to improve society. It is a devastating blow to society that profit-making concerns are allowing big businesses to have influence where they ought not, jeopardising what should be the main aim of any academic institution.
Probably the most frustrating part of the entire situation is how easily it could be remedied if profit were to be demoted from its current position of power and replaced with a desire for a fair and equal society. Free and fully government funded education would remedy all of the above issues. With full funding, universities would not need to invest in large corporations, thus removing any bias or ability for one to influence the other. Without needing to strive to make a profit, universities could return all their focus to their principle and most important aim – the creation of well educated and free thinking individuals. ‘Well how would you fund all this?’ we may ask. The answer is simple; we need only look to the same companies that academic institutions have been investing in for decades. Durham alone invests in both Amazon.com INC and Vodafone Group PLC, two companies notorious for their tax avoidance. Instead of continuing to finance enormous bonuses for the parasitic tax-dodgers who run these businesses, we should take our money back by expropriating these and the other big businesses that are kept afloat thanks to the public money of students and workers. With democratic control of these companies we could invest in education instead of arms production. It is not an issue of lack of the necessary wealth to provide free education, but rather a problem of a tiny minority controlling all of the wealth – a problem that fundamentally has occurred due to capitalism and will continue to occur until we break free of it.
by Amber Donovan, Durham Marxist Society