Harnessing the power of changemakers

I believe we need to see a major shake-up in our universities that allows them to better respond to the changing global economy. Our universities need to become hubs of social and economic innovation and entrepreneurialism enabling individuals and communities to adapt and grasp the opportunities the new economy presents.

We have been thinking about this a lot at University Alliance, and there are three questions we have been asking that are particularly important to this debate.

1. Changing economy – industrial world to entrepreneurial world

Firstly, how do universities need to be responding to the changing economy? For the past 18 months, we have been running a futures project called university_vision, looking at the changing economic and social drivers over the next 20 years and what that means for universities.

University vision


One key theme that has dominated these discussions has been the changing dynamics of the way we work. We are already seeing a major shift from the industrial economy of the 20th Century to a much more entrepreneurial and enterprising economy.

In the industrial economy work is predominantly about having a career that is well-defined and generally in a large organisation engaged in making, selling or delivering goods and services.

By contrast, the entrepreneurial world is made up of relatively small enterprises and individual entrepreneurs often forming and reforming around changing opportunities for applying new technologies and approaches to create innovative solutions. Work in this environment is highly creative and focused on outcomes.

Alongside these changes to the way we work are the massive global challenges growing up around us such as climate change, fuel poverty, an ageing population and food and water shortages.

However, despite the changing economy the vast majority of the education sector is still geared up to deliver for the industrial world. These shifts are hugely relevant to how higher education operates and prepares individuals and communities for these changes, in particular by supporting the growing need for social entrepreneurs.

2. Universities as social enterprises within an entrepreneurial world

Secondly, how do we harness the power of universities as social enterprises within the entrepreneurial world? Perhaps a helpful way to frame this change is to think about the role of universities as social enterprises themselves.

Universities are essentially in the business of offering transformational experiences and generating and sharing knowledge to improve the lives of individuals and communities locally and globally – the definition of social enterprise.

Growing the Future

Growing the Future

As with the description of the entrepreneurial world, universities need to be working collaboratively, forming and reforming around the opportunities presented by new technologies and connectivity and the challenges we face globally.

What organisations are better placed to develop social entrepreneurs than universities? While I would argue none, there is also need for rapid transformation to keep up with the pace of change externally.

A culture of collaboration and partnership is going to need to be prevalent for this to work. Universities working together around common localities or themes will be key. We see good examples of this happening already, for instance social entrepreneurs in Oxford  are very harmoniously supported by the two universities there, Oxford and Oxford Brookes.

As anchor institutions, universities have strong networks cutting across sectors and social, environmental and economic needs. For example, the Social Enterprise University Enterprise Network run out of Plymouth University is a partnership between industry, the public sector and universities dedicated to extend and demonstrate the value of social enterprise, drawing on local, national and international expertise and knowledge. They have created a network for innovation, and sharing best practice and research in social enterprise.

We will need to see more of this kind of approach and connectedness to really harness the value of universities as social enterprises.

3. Growing entrepreneurial graduates

Finally, how do we grow individuals to grasp the opportunities of the new economy? Fundamentally, universities need to be modelling this approach in order to be growing social entrepreneurs. It will be graduates who are the driving force behind the UK’s success in the entrepreneurial world.


Start-up: a story

We can already see the impact the entrepreneurial world is having on student and graduate behaviour. This is something that we highlighted in our recent ‘Start-up: a story’ project. In 2009 there were 12 university enterprise societies, now there are 130. Turnover from graduate start-ups doubled between 2008 and 2010 to over £270m. Alliance universities are particularly strong in this area, with turnover from Alliance start-ups accounting for more than half of the total. These universities are leading the way by embedding a culture of entrepreneurialism and collaboration across their teaching and research.

Universities need to be structuring their courses, campuses and teaching in a way that prepares their students, and staff, to succeed and lead in the entrepreneurial world. They need to be equipping them in a way that harnesses their power as changemakers in an increasingly challenging global environment; building their creativity, agility, resilience and flexibility to respond quickly to new opportunities and rising challenges.

I do believe this change is critical. Apart from universities I cannot see an institution able to meet the need for more social entrepreneurs in the UK. The work UnLtd and Hefce are doing is a vital source of support for social entrepreneurs in our universities. But more than this I see it as a powerful catalyst in supporting the wider change we need to see within our university sector as a whole that builds a stronger framework for entrepreneurialism and growing social entrepreneurs in particular.

This will be key to the future health and success of the UK’s society and economy.

Further reading