While there are other UK universities that have links to the social enterprise sector, including Plymouth and Sheffield, Northampton is the first to make such ties part of its strategic mission as an institution. Indeed, they’re aiming ‘to make Northamptonshire the Silicon Valley of social enterprise in the UK’. That may not be the tightest of analogies, but the sentiment is clear enough.
It’s all about plugging the skills gap and bringing the worlds of academia and entrepreneurialism together – but this time incorporating the local community too. As part of a five-year strategy dubbed ‘Raising the Bar’, from October all its students will have the opportunity as part of their degree courses to work in a social enterprise - one set up or supported by the university, or one operating locally.
The idea is that as a result they’ll become more entrepreneurial, and perhaps even be able to earn money while they study – pretty appealing when you’re facing years of debt just to study in the first place. So not only will they help the community, they’ll also be able to develop much-needed practical skills for the future. The plan includes the integration of social enterprise into teaching, learning and research across the university, plus a ‘long-term strategic project with local authorities, businesses, the third sector, and individual citizens in Northamptonshire’.
Simon Denny, the development director of the programme, reckons the idea was born of a belief that social enterprise is becoming an increasingly important part of the working world for which Northampton is preparing its students, and says that the university is committed to improving the local community. Can’t argue with any of that. But there’s another reason why the idea must have seemed appealing. Now that students are going to be shelling out such hefty sums in tuition fees, universities like Northampton need to convince prospective applicants that they’re likely to get a return on their investment. And in a very competitive marketplace, it’s handy to have a point of difference that sets you apart from the crowd.
You have to salute the ambition. The sector is becoming increasingly important, and any attempts to instil business and community sense into students are without doubt a good step towards plugging the oft-publicised skills gap. Focusing on social enterprise does have its drawbacks, of course: the university’s development office might argue that trying to crank out entrepreneurs who go out into the world, make a shedload of money and then give some of it back to their beloved institution might be a more effective in terms of long-term funding. But this is arguably a much better bet as far as the local area is concerned…