UnLtd bets on HEIs to take social entrepreneurship mainstream

"Education, education, education." Just as Tony Blair campaigned to put classrooms at the top of the political agenda in 2007, so UnLtd is pushing the idea of academic institutions ensuring social entrepreneurship is seen as a viable career option.

Of the many programmes that UnLtd runs, SEE Change is looking to embed a culture of social entrepreneurship in higher education. As Katherine Danton, director of strategy and influence at UnLtd told an assembled audience at the SEE Change conference this week, it’s important to promote understanding and acceptance of social entrepreneurship because “kids need their parents to say ‘yes, it’s a career, go for it’, instead of asking them why they aren’t going to study Maths…”

SEE Change was put together in association with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The programme now numbers 86 universities and 30 Further Education colleges that support social entrepreneurs within their institutions to start and thrive. Danton explained how UnLtd started working with universities: “Back in 2010 we realised that we couldn’t do everything that we wanted to achieve for social entrepreneurs alone. So we decided to set up this ecosystem of support.”

Part of the literature for delegates included a booklet listing social ventures that universities have supported in conjunction with UnLtd. 31 social ventures were included that have connections to host venue The Royal College of Arts and universities including Northampton, Manchester, Liverpool and Coventry. Of the social enterprises that have flourished with this kind of support is Keele University’s community local outreach collaboration (CLOCK) which provides legal advice to disadvantage communities and the Oxford Brookes supported Yellow Submarine Café, which trains and employs people with learning difficulties.

Increasingly we are the only institutions that have money and a public commitment to serving the community

Representing Coventry on the panel of speakers at the SEE Change conference was Keith Jeffrey. He is the managing director of Coventry University Social Enterprise, which was set up by the university to help staff, students and alumni set up their own social enterprises. Jeffrey said that the role of universities is moving beyond primarily producing research to involve providing advice about the future delivery of public services and indeed playing a more active role in delivering those services. “Increasingly we are the only institutions that have money and a public commitment to serving the community. Local authorities used to be like that and they still have that commitment but they haven’t got the cash anymore,” Jeffrey said. 

Joining Jeffrey at the event was Social Enterprise UK’s Stuart Emmerson who pointed out that universities “are increasingly seeing themselves as social enterprises… investing socially and economically in communities”. Emmerson mentioned Plymouth in particular, the first university to receive the social enterprise mark.

Highlighting the Buy Social campaign, Emmerson urged university representatives present to also think about their supply chains to help contribute socially: “Just changing a small portion of the spend of a university in terms of their procurement can have a massive impact. Spend with universities is estimated at £7bn. 0.5% of that would mean £35m having incredible social impact and changing lives. It’s not about spending more, it’s about spending differently.”


Photo credit: Alan Light