The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) is to survey beneficiaries about its approach to investment in a breakthrough for a membership campaign that urged divestment from “morally unacceptable” companies.

The ‘Listen to USS!’ campaign, organised by responsible investment NGO ShareAction, met with senior members of the £44bn (€55.5bn) scheme last week, delivering a petition signed by more than 3,200 members.

The meeting between trustees and members of its executive board, including chief executive Bill Galvin and co-head of responsible investment Daniel Summerfield, resulted in an agreement to survey members on their views of non-financial investment matters.

A Law Commission report on fiduciary duties, published earlier this year, ruled that trustees would be able to take account of non-financial investment matters – such as environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns – if they consulted with the membership.

Such consultations could allow for trustees to divest certain stocks or sectors, if they had evidence that beneficiaries support such a decision.

ShareAction’s chief executive Catherine Howarth welcomed the university scheme’s decision.

“It’s a victory for pension scheme members speaking up about their views, that USS has listened to their concerns and agreed to conduct a survey of members’ views on non-financial factors,” she said.

“We look forward to working with the scheme to make sure the survey works for everyone, and hopefully this sets a precedent for the broader industry.”

USS, currently consulting on changes to its benefits, has agreed to conduct the survey once all parties have agreed to the fund’s new structure.

When the campaign launched in late October, Tim Colbourn, a faculty member of the University College London’s Institute for Global Health and a USS member, argued that many so-called ethical investment decisions were also financial ones, pointing at the risk of fossil fuel companies being overvalued.

The scheme could not be reached for comment.

However, upon the campaign’s launch, a spokeswoman for USS noted its work in building understanding of the risk of climate change, and pushing for the development of a regulatory framework that allows the development of a low-carbon economy.

For more on the impact of scheme beneficiaries lobbying pension providers, see the current issue of IPE