Bridging the ‘Social Aspirational Gap’ – is Social Enterprise in HE the answer?

What do I mean by the ‘Social Aspirational Gap’? Well, I’ve borrowed the phrase from Matthew Taylor’s excellent keynote address to the QAA Annual Conference last week. It is essentially the gap between where society is now and where we want it to be in the future. The question is; do we have the tools required to get there?

The contention is, and it’s one I stand firmly behind, that if we continue as we are both as a society and as a Higher Education sector (a crucial driver of knowledge production, sharing and skills and expertise), with a lack of innovation, cooperation, mutualism and a real sense of engagement with each other as partners and collaborators then society as a whole will stagnate and we will lose all hope of reaching that goal of a ‘Good Society’.

For me, while this is a huge challenge – and much bigger than many of the politicians would have you believe – there are one or two shining lights in the emergent gloom. The first is clearly higher education, with its capacity to be transformational – for students, communities, businesses, the economy and also society as a whole. Another is Social Enterprise – where ‘doing good’ and having a social mission at the heart of your business or enterprise is just as important as turning a healthy profit.

A few short weeks ago I attended an event hosted by both HEFCE and UnLtd: the foundation for social entrepreneurs. As partners these two organisations had produced a 1-year programme called ‘Dare To Be Different’ worth £1m in seed funding to support social entrepreneurs across the HE sector – academics and students alike. The results were astonishing: £625,000 awarded directly to 200 staff and students, in 70 HEIs across the UK; each project received, on average, £5000 in initial funding and with this reached an average of 500 beneficiaries, recruited 12 volunteers, created 2 jobs, raising £5,800 in additional income; 90% of all applicants felt that their confidence in running their own venture had been boosted.

These are impressive statistics. As someone who counts himself as a social entrepreneur, and has worked in both the HE and SE sectors, I am unsurprisingly sold on the idea. Clearly many remain to be convinced. If you asked most colleagues in the sector the phrase ‘social enterprise’ would bring blank looks and furrowed brows, but things are changing. If we want to build a sector, a society and an economy (for which higher education is its engine room) that matches our own aspirations then we need to change.

Stronger engagement with the innovators and entrepreneurs present across the UK in start-ups, local, small and big business is increasingly essential in a world where public funding for HE is as low as it has been for decades – particularly of course across the national teaching budget. Some institutions – often modern universities who in many cases have been forced to identify their USP and have always engaged effectively in their local communities, with local businesses and stakeholders – have already taken this leap and many more should do so.

Higher Education is fertile ground for social enterprise. The ideas are there; support networks are available – with organisations like Enterprise Educators UK, SIFE, HEEG and NACUE; students’ unions are increasingly opportunities to develop and test-drive ideas. What is needed is a real commitment, sector-wide: tailored training programmes for staff and students would give them some of the hard and soft skills such as project development, leadership skills and the all-important ‘confidence’, to deliver an idea to its fruition. Partnerships between HEIs and local enterprises are important, and more energy needs to be firmly behind creating more of these. Lastly there needs to be a culture of social enterprise established in HE. Staff and student champions, case studies and local networks within institutions of expertise allied to ideas.

If we’re really going to meet our own aspirations of what society, what economy, or even what local community it is that we want to see in the future we need to accept that ‘business as usual’, in an ever-changing, advancing world at a time of great public constraint, will not get us there. Are we prepared to take a chance? To make a change? Do we dare to be different?

A link to HEFCE and UnLtd’s partnership programme can be found here:

You can find out more about the QAA’s National Conference here:

One response to “Bridging the ‘Social Aspirational Gap’ – is Social Enterprise in HE the answer?

  1. Really interesting article, at University I was not really aware of Social Enterprise but now I work within the sector, it is amazing to see the amount of Social Enterprises there are locally and nationally and the fantastic services that they provide.

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