Ethics Forum

University of Edinburgh

Should a university’s investments affect research or teaching?

Universities have a unique position as centres for the pursuit of knowledge. This means that while they accept funds in the form of gifts from private sector donors, concerns about academic freedom crop up if those funds are seen as “hiring out” university resources to conduct research for the private sector. But what kinds of criteria are appropriate in vetting funding sources? Should a University’s decisions regarding investment affect, or be affected by, its research and teaching activities? If so, how?

Have your say in the comments section.

From University of Edinburgh’s Portfolio of Investments 31/07/15 (image refers to indirect holdings with Hermes).

Debate continues

You can find the results of the University of Edinburgh Fossil Fuels Review 2015 on the dedicated website.

As it happened

On Friday October 16th, 2015 we held a debate to explore the relationship between a university’s investment decisions and its research and teaching activities. The aim was to air and clarify these issues as a contribution to the University’s commitment to social responsibility. The event was chaired by Dr Kieran Oberman (Chancellor’s Fellow in Politics, University of Edinburgh).

In answer to the title of the event, speakers agreed that investments should play no role in teaching and research decisions. Further, they agreed that all strategic decisions, including decisions about investment policy, should be made on the basis of a core set of university values that are public and clear. The recent review of whether the University should divest from fossil fuels was used as an example at times to illustrate cases where University values could more explicitly direct decision-making.


Dr Andy Kerr (Executive Director, Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, University of Edinburgh) focused on his role in the investment committee that reviewed the University of Edinburgh’s position on investment in fossil fuels. 5-8% of University investments are in fossil fuels, which equates to £25-30 million. As part of the process of reviewing the University’s position on fossil fuels, the committee considered what a university is for, and what its investment decisions are aiming to achieve. The committee decided that fundamentally the University’s investment portfolio is intended to support the University’s functions, rather than to make a profit. However, this process identified the need to have a clear, core set of University values that could serve as the basis for similar strategic decision-making in the future. These values should influence not only its investment, but also its teaching and research activities.


Liz Reilly (Director of Major Gifts, University of Edinburgh) approached the question from the angle of her role in fundraising, in which she must consider not simply where to put money once we have it, but where it comes from in the first place. She identified three core issues in the ethics of fundraising:

  1. Source of the wealth being donated
    How was the money made? Does that align with our values as an institution?
  2. Appropriateness of directed donations
    Directed donations are donations with “strings attached” on how funds can be spent. Are the directions concordant with the University’s goals?
  3. Donor themselves
    Are the donors people or organisations that we want to be associated with?

Liz suggested that ultimately, even when prospective donors are of questionable moral character, if we can do something socially valuable with the donated funds we can transform them into something worthwhile.


Professor Tim Hayward (Director, Just World Institute, University of Edinburgh) began by clarifying that investments should not have any influence on teaching or research activities. On whether research or teaching activities should affect investment decisions, he suggested that what really matters is to operate within the University’s core values, in a way that is explicit and transparent. He suggested that while Edinburgh University has been better than many in undertaking the review of fossil fuels investment, we should improve on this in future by making the criteria for our decisions clear, and following those criteria closely even if it results in a decision which strays from a comfortable middle ground that is amenable to agreement. Tim also touched on the mutually supportive aims of academic freedom and social responsibility (see his blog Academic Freedom and Social Responsibility for more on this).

The audience questions picked up on the case of Edinburgh’s review of fossil fuel investments, and probed the role the active and vocal student divestment movements played in the final decision-making. Andy pointed out that the vocal demonstrations on campus had not translated into proportionate numbers of submissions to the review. Kieran asked the audience if they had known about the process, and most had not. Most members of the audience also could not name any core values of the University, and discussion turned to how we might set such core values as a University in future.



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This entry was posted on September 18, 2015 by .
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