Working together: social enterprises and universities

Universities have always had a strong social mission to work with and support their local communities. Now more than ever, universities are demonstrating how they add economic and social value – to their local communities and beyond – as well as ensuring that their graduates have the necessary skills to move into employment. Working with social enterprise is one way in which universities are doing both these things.

 Social enterprise within universities has grown quite organically. Different universities are taking very different approaches to how they incorporate it into their offer. For example the University of Northampton is integrating social enterprise across teaching, research, business and local community collaborations, even procurement. Others, such as the University of Sheffield, offer specific modules on social enterprise to all students or offer support through extra-curricular activities including the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) programme.

 So, from a university’s perspective, what are the benefits to working with social enterprise? For one, it is a growing sector, and in an age where universities must have employment skills at the forefront of their student offer, social enterprise can help enormously. Social Enterprise UK’s The State of Social Enterprise Survey 2011 indicates that the sector has great potential for growth when compared to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs): in 2010-11 58% of social enterprises grew compared to 28% of SMEs and 57% of social enterprises were predicting growth, in comparison to 41% of SMEs. This growth clearly points to opportunities for students to work with social enterprises to build their enterprise skills, as well as to develop potential graduate career routes.

 There are also benefits for social enterprises who work with universities, including ready access to talented and committed students (and potential future employees), as well as the expertise and insight of university staff, to name just two.

 So there is much potential for working together. In that spirit, Universities UK is hosting a round table next week to look further at how universities and social enterprises can work together and what is already happening within institutions. We will draw together vice-chancellors, graduates, social enterprise businesses and support organisations to discuss their experiences of social enterprise and universities working together, what can be done differently and what the future could hold.

We will be tweeting live from the round table on Monday 21 May 2012 10.00 to 14:00 Join the conversation at #UnisAndSocEnt and let us know what you think: what is the role for universities and social enterprise?

About Andrea Grabham

Policy Researcher at Universities UK
This entry was posted in About Higher Education, Business, industry and employability, Community and society, Efficiency and sustainability, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Working together: social enterprises and universities

  1. Mike Britton says:

    Universities have the ability to define what Social Enterprise really means and to enable a wider understanding of pursuing commercial business for social benefit. I am concerned that some organisations that claim to be social enterprises do not actually conduct any business at all,. A clear definition is needed to help broaden understanding of this term, so that real socially driven commercial business can develop in the UK. A social enterprise is not a commercial business doing social good, but a social organisation conducting commercial business for the benefit of our community or society.

  2. James Intriligator says:

    At Bangor University we have been running a programme called “Social Enterprise Accelerator” (SEA). Students and staff have been working with local businesses/enterprises/entities to create, strengthen, and extend social enterprises. Great training for students, great “impact” for academics, a great use of our skills/expertise, and it has been wonderful at breaking down divides with town. Very exciting stuff. I will be curious to tune into the roundtable to hear about other initiatives elsewhere.

    • Mike Clements says:

      Hi James. Is your SEA purely voluntary participation? Is the programme centrally organised or run from a Department/Faculty? Mike

      • James Intriligator says:

        Hi Mike, thanks for your interest. We ran it this past year as a purely voluntary thing — kids came along every thursday evening from 6-9 pm (for 10 weeks). It was pretty successful. And, it was run just by myself and a colleague (as a radical fringe group)… and, we brought in lots of local experts (voluntary – local experts on various topics). Overall it was very successful. I think we will run it again this coming year… and, it impressed enough people that it looks like might get some central/admin support. let me know if you want to know more — I think it was cool and would love to see other unis give it a go!

    • che asniza says:

      Dear James, I am Che Asniza, also am interested to know more about social entrepreneurs among students of the university. could you share with me other activities beside SEA as mentioned? How did you first start the program? Which part of the semester students are involved? TQ

  3. Tim Curtis says:

    Social enterprise is what people do, rather than particular type of trading organisation. What universities are particularly good at is investigating social problems and coming up with solutions. It’s a great time to harness all the entrepreneurship experience that Universities have been developing to solve problems caused by inequality and poverty, by ill health or failed education. I think universities are starting to realise the impact that they can have, and are exploring the ethical challenges of doing business differently.

  4. Andrea Grabham says:

    Thanks for the comments so far on social enterprise. Really interesting to hear what is going on in universities and thoughts of areas we could do more in. Don’t forget to follow and contribute to Monday’s event via Twitter #UnisAndSocEnt

  5. I have been following a number of blogs and discussions on the various definitions of social enterprise theses past few months. As Mike’s opening statement notes, there is a huge degree of variance. This is the definition offered by the UK Quality Assurance Agency, which might help to frame some of the thinking here:

    “Social enterprises can be defined as organisations, bodies or individuals driven by social or cultural values as opposed to financial gain or profit. Typically, a social enterprise will seek to become financially sustainable in order to respond to the social needs of its target audience(s), but does not consider financial gain to be its primary goal.”

    • Mike Britton says:

      The only expansion I would like to see within this definition would relate to “financially sustainable”. This term needs to incorporate growth of an organisation, not just sustainability, if we are to see larger social enterprises.

    • Hi Mike, we did discuss this, but felt that growth was not necessarily a criteria to force opinion on. Evidence of networks of social enterprises for example, ones that worked together well but had no intention of growing beyond their current size, led to this conclusion.
      Of course, this doesn’t stop any educator extending the criteria at all, it simply gives them a robust QAA point of reference to argue from, where nothing previously existed in quality control HE to help in this way.

  6. Academics at many universities in the UK are currently working to define social enterprise, evaluate their performance and use their expert knowledge to assist the sector to grow. Researchers at the University of Northampton are currently developing rigorous and valid instruments to measure or evaluate the impact of successful social enterprises, and staff from within the university are assisting social enterprises to become more investment ready, so that they can better seek private sector investment at a time of public sector austerity. At the University of Northampton, we are committed to these endeavours and have a team of researchers in our School of Social Sciences, collaborating with fellow researchers, both within and beyond our university, on a number of projects to address these issues. It is an exciting time to be involved in this rapidly developing field of research and to be part of a process that has the potential to change our society for the better.

  7. Pingback: Tap the Table to speak at the UUK Social Enterprise Round Table

  8. Mike Clements says:

    Besides always encouraging student and staff engagement in many forms with our local communities, since 2006 we (Staffordshire University) have been offering new business start up opportunities for our undergraduate and postgraduate students, supported by staff and mentors drawn from the local business community. From the contributions thus far quite a number of these would be considered as social enterprises; interestingly, we find though many students now seek self-employment as a career option, a significant number see that option as supporting community rather than themselves. Through the links and networks we’ve developed we are looking at establishing a ‘Social Enterprise Office’ in collaboration with the Students Union. It would act as a 2-way conduit between the university and our local social enterprises, offering support to establish new start ups and provide guidance for longer term sustainability, whilst at the same time adding to the richness of our students’ (and staff) learning experiences.

  9. Universities are definately far more engaged with Social Enterprise than ever before. As part of our HEIF Strategy at Staffordshire University we are bringing staff together and assessing what opportunities are available for the institution to generate projects and ideas and maximise our expertise. We very much see ourselves as having a responsibility as a university to engage in Social Enterprise activity.

  10. Miles Weaver says:


    I have an academic interest in this topic. How can I find out more or even participate?

    • Helen Barker says:

      Hello Miles, thanks for your post. I’ll get my colleagues who look after social enterprise at Universities UK to get in contact. In the meantime, you can follow some of the discussion on twitter #unisandsocent

  11. Andy Brady says:

    It’s good to see the number of universities now getting involved, and it was interesting to hear about the range of approaches taken at yesterday’s event.

    We at Anglia Ruskin University focus primarily on skills development for the sector, but we are also holding a major conference on September 12, and offer placements and will be applying for UnLtd/HEFCE funding to promote SE to students and staff.

    I would urge universities to get involved with their local network for social enterprise – you can see a list of them here:

  12. For those who may be unaware, the QAA Guidelines on enterprise and entrepreneurship education only came out in late September following extensive consultation.

    These aim to help course developers to navigate quality assurance panels when designing both curricular and extra curricular work. Notably it offers perspectives on assessment, so that outcomes can be embedded in course documentation etc.

    Its a flexible approach that enable educators to argue their own fors or againsts – so as to match their own agendas, goals and environments.

    We hope this will help the enterprise and social enterprise agenda.

    • MJ Ray says:

      Well, it’s good that social enterprise is in there, but it’s a bit disappointing that it’s sometimes “business or social enterprise”, drawing a false distinction that is a common problem among academics and new graduates at the moment. If a social enterprise isn’t also a functioning business, it won’t be a social enterprise for very long!

      Particular types of social enterprise (such as co-operative or paternalist) aren’t mentioned, but maybe that’s for more detailed guidance to do.

      • All I can say is that I very much agree, which is why we discussed it so much – it is not intended to be a false distinction at all, but like anything, I guess it can be interpreted differently.

        The main point is that it can now be argued as part of a curriculum so much easier – as nothing existed before from QAA, and without QAA anything else is easily ignored in the University quality systems.

        As you say, details can be added to suit the educator / educational environment – hence no specific business models were mentioned.

        Here’s a quote from p 22:

        The task of the enterprise educator
        The task of the enterprise educator is to:

        • create learning environments that encourage entrepreneurial behaviour in students now and in the future
        • design curricula with learning outcomes that relate to the enterprise agenda through increasing relevance and decreasing abstraction
        • enable students to relate their learning to their subject or industry context and to personal aspirations
        • continuously exploit new opportunities for enhancing the student experience
        • be innovative in their approach to teaching and willing to experiment with different pedagogies to ensure appropriateness
        • be a leader who is able to shape the opportunity-based learning environment
        • engage external communities and find appropriate practical contexts to enhance the learning experience
        • engage entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial ventures to enhance learning opportunities.

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