News: Matt Malpass

Universities begin to unlock the potential of social enterprise

Higher education is at the forefront of innovation, so it is no surprise the profile of social enterprises is rising.

Universities have always played an important role in their communities and have frequently been at the forefront of innovation and enterprise, so it’s no wonder that social entrepreneurship is starting to emerge and thrive at them.

Since 2009, UnLtd, the Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs, has been working with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to support higher education institutions (HEIs) to find, support and develop the next generation of social entrepreneurs.

So far, UnLtd has partnered with 56 HEIs across the UK and we’re working with them to ensure that every staff member, every student and every recent graduate understands what social enterprise is, what the social benefits are and how social entrepreneurship can be developed. Indeed, our aim is to “embed” a culture of social entrepreneurship in 40% of he HEIs in England. So what have we learnt so far?

Central to our approach is to invest in and support the individual entrepreneur – and to help HEIs create a supportive, encouraging environment where social enterprise talent is nurtured and opportunities spotted. So far, our support programme has made about 500 funding awards, with over 50% to students, 25% to staff and 10% to graduates. Some of our awards are designed to help people try an idea – give them confidence to continue – while others have been designed to help social ventures get going and scale.

Over this past year we’ve been working with dedicated programme leads within HEIs who have each taken a different approach to developing their programme of activity relevant to their institution. In order for the programme to have real impact, it’s been important for HEIs to build a strong movement of support from senior management and academic staff within the university. Oxford Brookes for example, has identified an academic member of staff in each faculty who acts as “faculty champion” and in order in order to make the programme accessible to as wide an audience as possible, place emphasis on “passion” as the basis for student participation, developing a campus-wide campaign “From Passion to Action”.

So what have the results been so far? We’ve been holding regular learning and knowledge exchange events and continue to have the programme independently evaluated. Over a third of all HEI’s reported some kind of institutional-wide change, including increased support provision for social entrepreneurs, increased awareness and understanding of social entrepreneurship and support from senior management.

University of the Arts London (UAL) joined the programme with a highly developed culture and practice of social innovation already in place. UAL has used the programme to open up additional funding and support opportunities for students from across each of its six distinct colleges. UAL has also been able to leverage support from its Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) network to provide award winners with personalised support, advice and one-to-one mentoring.

The University of Northampton has taken a strategic approach to innovating, inspiring and investing in social entrepreneurship, with the initiative being driven by the vice chancellor along with support from the university’s senior management team, resulting in the institution being recognised as playing a leading role in developing social enterprise in the HE sector while boosting the social economy itself. Through the “£1 Billion Challenge” Northampton University is encouraging the UK’s Higher Education sector to spend with social enterprises at least £1bn of its £7bn per annum expenditure on procuring goods and services from external suppliers.

Over three quarters of HEIs reported making changes to the way they backed social entrepreneurs, introducing and developing specific social enterprise support, strengthening their institutional offer with increased knowledge and contacts, with some even incorporating into curriculum development and delivery.

Ensuring that social entrepreneurship meets the core objectives of the institution, particularly with regards to graduate career paths and the student experience, seems to be an essential part of enabling future support programmes to be sustainable. Two thirds of HEI partners expect changed or different approaches to continue after the programme ends, dependent on funding and internal reviews.

We recently held a national event to bring together our university partners, award winners and professionals interested in this agenda to showcase the different HEI approaches and share good practice from the programme.

It still feels that like early days for embedding cultural change within higher education, but we’re witnessing clear and positive indications that the foundations for it are being established.

You can read our research paper on unlocking the potential of social entrepreneurship in higher education, find out more about the HE support programme including current case-studies, or catch the Twitter highlights from the recent Lead The Change event.

Karl Belizaire is policy manager, leading on youth and education, at UnLtd, a foundation for social entrepreneurs.

From Guardian Social Enterprise.


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