Hands-circle-650-x-300Earlier in the summer the Oxfordshire Social Entrepreneurship Partnership hosted a conference in partnership with UnLtd, the Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs, at the newly refurbished Wolfson College in Oxford.

The conference, titled ‘Universities as catalysts for social innovation in their community’, was a series of 12 interactive workshops showcasing methods of supporting social enterprise and social innovation within and alongside higher education institutions (HEIs). The event was an opportunity to demonstrate the passion and dedication of the many social entrepreneurs working in and with universities and colleges. As the debate about the nature of society in the UK following the European Union referendum outcome continues, it seems timely to think about how this energy can be harnessed to address issues of social cohesion.

Having undertaken work spanning the higher education and social enterprise boundary over the last seven years, I believe universities and colleges are well placed to lead such an agenda. With relatively modest financial support, many HEIs in England have embraced the opportunities to find, support and nurture social entrepreneurs. They have found these social entrepreneurs amongst groups of staff, students, and alumni, and through them have been able to sow the seeds for positive social change in communities locally, nationally and internationally.

UnLtd has worked closely with HEIs across England to help develop the tools needed to offer effective support for social entrepreneurs. Since becoming HEFCE’s key delivery partner in this area in 2009, it has helped HEIs support over 1000 social ventures.

Some examples of the inspiring individuals and innovative social ventures that have been given the opportunity to grow through this activity have been pulled together in a set of case studies recently published by UnLtd. The potential of these imaginative ventures is truly inspiring, and testament both to the passion of staff and student social entrepreneurs and to the support they receive from the universities and colleges with which they work.

Increasingly HEIs have seen their support for social enterprise as contributing to key strategic objectives such as building social capital amongst students; to ‘work readiness’ as part of their offer to potential students; and to their civic leadership role as anchor institutions. This might be expressed in work to utilise the convening power of a university with local partners, or in looking at how contributions to social impact can be measured in procurement projects, such as estates development. A number of universities have actively sought recognition of the role social enterprise plays in their business and their ethos, through securing for example the Social Enterprise Mark, or becoming part of the ‘Changemaker’ initiative run by international enterprise organisation Ashoka U.

HEFCE has worked with Social Enterprise Mark CIC to produce a film articulating the benefits of becoming a ‘social enterprise university’, and we are working with animators to develop materials to explain to prospective students why looking at the social impact an HEI can have might be part of decision-making process when choosing where to study.

In a way, this might be pushing at an open door. After all, universities have obligations as charities, and many can point to deep-rooted historical antecedents for their role in wider society. Similarly, much evidence points to the increasing desire of young people to consider a future job not just in terms of its economic impact, but also its social impact. Given the continuing debates about social mobility and social cohesion, now might be the perfect time for HEIs to promote the social impact of their value proposition to students, employers and their regional communities.

To help frame this debate, UnLtd and HEFCE in partnership with the University of Northampton are holding a conference on Friday 30 September to consider how to build  on the momentum created over the last seven years of HEFCE’s investment and harness the power of social enterprise in higher education to bring about positive social change. You can register for the conference on the UnLtd website.

I look forward to seeing you there…