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.