Universities and social enterprise in a global context

Three in four of more than 200 universities surveyed globally are involved with at least one social enterprise, a British Council report reveals. Engagements range from placing students in social enterprises and offering accredited courses in social entrepreneurship to providing incubation spaces, support services and research expertise.

Other common activities are creating opportunities for students and academics to develop their own social enterprises, and students being mentored by social entrepreneurs.

The survey found that “75% of the institutions surveyed are actively involved with at least one social enterprise, and over half of these are also engaged in an international social enterprise partnership".

“Surprisingly perhaps, it discovered that only 2% of higher education institutions had not previously worked with a social enterprise.”

The study report was launched on 5 May at Going Global 2016, the British Council’s flagship higher education conference that was held in Cape Town, South Africa, from 3-5 May and attracted 800 participants.

Social Enterprise in a Global Context: The role of higher education institutions is the first major international study to examine how and why so many higher education institutions around the world collaborate and engage with social enterprises, the benefits and impacts, and how such activity may be enhanced.

The study

Conducted by the Socio-Economic Research and Information Observatory at Britain’s Plymouth University, the study placed a special focus on universities operating in an international context. It will be followed by case studies.

The research comprised a desk-based review of social enterprise activity, a survey of universities to map social enterprise activity and explore benefits and challenges – the survey was sent to 993 institutions and received 205 returns, a 21% response rate – and consultation including in-depth interviews with up to three institutions in each country.

The more than 200 universities were in 12 countries, providing a range of geographical locations, higher education structures, economic development and rates of growth.

The countries in Asia were Hong Kong, India, Pakistan and Thailand; in Africa were Kenya and South Africa; included in Europe were Greece, Slovenia and the United Kingdom; Mexico in Latin America; and Canada and the United States in North America.

In the report foreword, Dr Jo Beall, director of education and society for the British Council, writes that universities and social enterprises can play a key role in supporting the interconnected challenges underpinning the global Sustainable Development Goals.

"Engaging with social enterprise enables institutions to interact closely with local businesses and communities to create inclusive and sustainable solutions to pressing issues,” Beall writes. “It also allows them to provide students with experiential learning opportunities and entrepreneurship skills that enhance their employability.”

Further, such engagement can support academics to develop enterprise solutions arising from research and translate it into tangible social impact, and can generate reputational benefit and income.

The research responds to worldwide growth in higher education and social enterprise. But until recently, says Beall, understanding of engagement globally was limited and focused on case studies and social enterprise-related learning pathways.

It is hoped the study will narrow the knowledge gap and facilitate dialogue, networking and learning exchange, open up avenues for enhanced international cooperation, and contribute to a stronger global narrative on social value and a better understanding of how engagement can help achieve development goals.

Findings and challenges

Universities, says Social Enterprise in a Global Context, commonly support students to gain awareness of social enterprise and develop as social entrepreneurs. “Typical approaches included student engagement through placements with an active partnership (cited by 80%), and support for student-led social enterprise (78%).”

Other frequently cited approaches include “providing access to facilities such as an incubation space, embedding social enterprise into curriculum delivery, providing placements for students and interns, and direct purchase of products or services”.

Interestingly, over half of institutions with an active partnership said there was an international element – but this was usually a smaller proportion of activity and involved collaboration with another university or group.

Institutions indicated that there was still work to be done in strengthening interaction and partnerships with social enterprises. They cited a range of challenges and, despite different contexts, “there was commonality in the barriers experienced”.

The most common challenge was lack of funding, especially related to the cost of staff time and resources. “This may suggest that the institutional benefits of social enterprise partnerships are not fully understood,” the report says.

“It was revealing that over three-quarters of higher education institutions underlined the importance of institutional buy-in as a key driver for engagement.”

Universities not working with social enterprises cited lack of knowledge and experience as a factor, and three-quarters would be interested in engaging if there was support. “This underlines an openness to future engagement, and an awareness of how social enterprise may benefit their mission or strategy.”

Institutions provided a range of good practice approaches that could be shared, around themes such as engaging communities, multidisciplinary networks, implementing action plans and monitoring the impact of partnerships.

They highlighted the importance of communication, openness in sharing knowledge, engagement of students and the sustainability of engagements. For true partnership, it was essential for institutions to take the time to understand the issues being addressed by a social enterprise, and its socio-economic and cultural context.


The study makes several recommendations:
  • • Underlying approaches and principles of social enterprise partnership may be shared more widely and adapted to different cultural contexts. Greater knowledge exchange could strengthen interaction while supporting and promoting new partnerships.

  • • There should be further support for impact assessment, to provide a clear recognition of the value of social enterprise engagement for students, staff and communities. Institutions would benefit from accessible, flexible and locally adaptable resources such as an evaluation toolkit and examples of outcome measures.

  • • Embedding social enterprise in strategies and plans is a key driver for institutional engagement. Senior ‘social enterprise champions’ could boost the credibility of staff working in the area. Mission statements should be explored to lend clarity to this approach.

  • • Social enterprise is a key mechanism to enhance employability – an issue that is becoming global. Policy-makers could consider ways of sharing good practice, and universities could use enhanced employability to differentiate themselves from competitors.

  • • The study found that universities are increasingly embracing their role as enablers of social entrepreneurs, introducing students to the concept of social enterprise, broadening awareness of opportunities and providing the confidence to set up social enterprises.

  • • Universities are key anchor institutions with large procurement needs. Their resources and purchasing power could be used to engage social enterprises as providers of services and infrastructure. This approach would need to be reflected in procurement policies.

  • • The study finds “considerable energy and openness to future engagement”. Further research could monitor levels of engagement and explore areas such as universities’ contributions to social enterprise development and the impact on graduate employability.