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SOAS's investment portfolio

Disclosure date: 4 March 2013

Reference: FOI2013/009

Request

1) I am a requesting that your University provides a full list of companies it invests in, including pension funds, hedge funds and banks, including the value of each investment. This includes any held in subsidiary companies or bodies in which the University is the majority shareholder or in other form, the owner. Where the university funds are investments are managed by a third party, please provide information about the companies that university funds have been invested by that third party.

2) If any similar Freedom of Information Request has been made to your university then please indicate this.

Response

1) Please see the attached list as requested in pdf format.

FOI2013/009Attachment (x-download; 189kb)

This information is considered exempt from disclosure under section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act.

The first thing to consider is whether the information concerned is commercial in nature. Information on SOAS’s investments is clearly commercial. SOAS pays a company to manage its investments, and its financial planning includes its ability to benefit from these investments. It seems clear that this information is commercial in nature.

It is then necessary to consider the nature of the prejudice. The commercial interest concerned is SOAS’s commercial interest. It would not require too much additional effort to deduce the investment advice that SOAS was being given by asking for regular updates of snapshots of our investment portfolio. ie reduce exposure, increase exposure, hold etc. Competitors could potentially use that information, prepared at SOAS’s expense, to improve their own financial position without having to pay for it as SOAS does.

Once the prejudice has been established, its likelihood should be considered. The Information Commissioner’s guidance suggests that “would” should be interpreted as being “more likely than not”. It is probably not more likely than not that prejudice would be caused by disclosure, but there is a “real and significant risk” that prejudice would be caused to use the terminology of the Information Tribunal in John Connor Press Associates Ltd v The Information Commissioner. SOAS’s argument then is that disclosure would be likely to prejudice its commercial interests.

The information concerned therefore falls within the exemption at section 43(2) given that it is commercial in nature and its disclosure would be likely to prejudice SOAS’s commercial interests. It is now necessary to consider the public interest in disclosure and balance this against the public interest in withholding the information.

Arguments in favour of disclosure

There is a general public interest in the transparency and accountability of public bodies.
There is a public interest in ensuring that public institutions such as SOAS are investing ethically, and that they are investing their money to best effect.


Arguments in favour of withholding the information

SOAS is a unique institution that brings many benefits to society, in particular through improving understanding between different cultures. The potential impact of reducing SOAS’s competitiveness is that it would be less effective at exploring cultural issues and helping society to understand them. This is not in the public interest.

Universities operate in an increasingly competitive environment, competing with private providers as well as other publicly funded institutions. As the Justice Select Committee recently stated “there is a strong public interest in competition between public and private sector bodies being conducted on a level playing field to ensure the best outcome for the taxpayer”.

Given the nature of higher education at this time, disclosure could constitute a breach of competition law, giving competitors an insight into SOAS’s strategic planning. This is not in the public interest.
The names of companies invested in are being disclosed, as has its investment policy in the past, which allows scrutiny of SOAS’s investment policy without endangering its competitiveness.

On balance then, SOAS concludes that the public interest is in favour of maintaining the exemption at section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, and the value of each investment is to be withheld.

In addition, the information is considered exempt under section 44(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act as it is considered that disclosure of the individual investments is prohibited under the Competition Act as being strategically useful information. This exemption is not subject to a public interest test.

2) Yes, similar requests have been received in the past.