Last week, I attended a round table discussion about Social Enterprise and Higher Education Institutions at the department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). The meeting was part of a larger event on social enterprise that was organised by Social Enterprise UK and UnLtd to mark Social Enterprise day.

The discussion explored different aspects in which universities operate and interact with the area of social entrepreneurship. It is just natural that when trying to argue a specific point, usually only one aspect of universities was in focus. So the discussion meandered through the areas of education, research, local economic impact and citizenship. The education aspects of teaching entrepreneurial skills and social commitment can be integrated in social enterprise activities. They are also hosting entrepreneurial staff who might want to extend their impact beyond scholarly contribution and spin-off activities that are based on their research. Universities are also a node in a wider knowledge and research network that can support social enterprises in the locality, beyond only working with students and staff. They are also large public bodies that can create significant impact through their contracts and procurement policies.

However, as the Universities UK report on social enterprise that was launched on the day demonstrated, the story is more complex. We have seen it at UCL in the report on staff engagement in third sector activities that was prepared for us by the Institute of Volunteering  Research.

The complexity is emerging because, inherently, the functions are not separated. Student education is closely linked to research, so if a student is participating in an enterprise society, and working on a research that will support a local social enterprise then we are mixing several of these functions. Staff members are also expressing this mix when they are viewing engagement with a social enterprise as part of their role as researchers and educators.The UCL SIFE society is working on a project they titled “UCL+” to explore the local impact of UCL and improve the impact.

In short, this complexity is not a bad thing – it shows that there is a lot of potential of embedding social enterprise in universities activities. It might be something that doesn’t obey clean taxonomies, but the more the various aspects are mixed, the better. 

Today I attended the UnLtd reception event for their Spring 2010 Level 2 Award winners. It was a very enjoyable and inspirational afternoon at the Huxton Apprentice, which is a Social Enterprise in its on right. The food was very good, so if you are looking for a place for a future event – you should consider it.

UnLtd is a charity that focuses on helping social entrepreneurs to develop their projects and achieve a better social impact. The level 2 Awards are for  ‘inspiring people who have innovative and entrepreneurial solutions to some of biggest challenges facing communities, wider society and the world.’ So it is a real honour to be awarded one together with Louise Francis who is running Mapping for Change.

Earlier this year, UnLtd teamed with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), to create a new set of awards which will encourage Social Entrepreneurship in the Higher Education sector. The Higher Education Social Entrepreneurship Awards programme was designed to ‘provides financial and non-financial support across Higher Education Institutions (HEI’s) in England to develop their expertise, skills, knowledge base and business support structures in social entrepreneurship and social enterprise activity’. I understand that many applications were submitted, so winning the award does mean that Mapping for Change was evaluated as a useful enterprise and I do hope that the support that we will receive will help us to grow more rapidly in the coming year.

What was especially wonderful about the event today is that it provided an opportunity to meet other award winners across the country, and learn about their projects. These include Jess Jowers from the The Global Bee Project, which are working to encourage ‘bee guardians’ and by so doing increasing local bee diversity, or Graham Barker, who run KPAC in Knowsley and provide training to people with disabilities, or Jane and Simon Berry who want Coca Cola to use its supply chain to deliver medicine across the world, and also another colleague who I met in the past researching Social Enterprise, Tim Curtis who has now integrated social enterprise into the teaching at University of Northampton. All the other projects and awardees were not less impressive – just check the Giving World Online or Enabled by Design or Student Hubs.

I must say that in terms of Social Enterprise ‘energy’, the Ordnance Survey funded GeoVation have a long way to go compared to the activities that UnLtd nurturing…

It is one thing to read about the different projects, but it is amazing to be in one room with so many people with such great ideas and passion to work on their area. I do hope that we will have opportunities to work jointly some other UnLtd awardees!

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