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How can higher education contribute to the development of the social economy and what can this sector offer to the agendas of universities?

With over 2.5 million people either studying or working within our Higher Education system in the UK, there is a heightened need for social responsibiity to be imbedded in the core of our Universities if we are to move towards a more social economy.

I recently  went to find out more about the role higher education institutions can play in the social economy at an event we held in partnership with the University of Manchester and UnLtd.

The role of institutions such as Universities in creating stronger and more resilient citizens and communities is hugely important. Ben Lucas, Director of the 2020 Public Services Trust at the RSA, opened the event highlighting the importance of institutions and individuals working together within communities to develop social productivity approaches to public services. Ben introduced the social economy; what drives it; and the challenges facing it:

What do we mean by ‘Social Economy’ and what drives it?

The UK social investment market is growing rapidly and the last decade has seen much progress in the social sector. According to the Social Economy Alliance ‘Social enterprises and co-operatives are outperforming just-for-profit businesses; alternative banks have better returns on assets, lower volatility and higher growth; and a growing proportion of start-ups are socially-driven.’

There are two main drivers behind our desire for a more social economy - a desire for autonomy and control over the services available to our communities and a general desire to do something good. As Dan Pink suggests in his RSA Animate ‘Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us’  ‘we are not as endlessly manipulable as people think!’

If we are to change society for the better then institutions and their communities need to embed social responsibility in to every action they take

What are the challenges facing the social economy?

The main challenges to the social economy fit in to three categories: Sustainability; scale; and funding. Here are the five biggest questions the social economy needs to answer if it is to thrive:

  • How can human potential be mobilised to empower communities?
  • How can we meet the needs of communities with increasing populations that want improved services for more people for less money?
  • How can social enterprise enable social value & spread the spirit of social enterprise within the community?
  • What is the model that will enable social enterprise to thrive?
  • How do we create dynamism and innovation in social enterprise when scaling up?
  • So what has the social economy got to do with Higher Education?

    In spite of the uneven distribution of wealth and power in the UK the distribution of knowledge is actually quite good. If you look at the University league tables there are ‘good’ universities all over the UK, however a disproportionate number of graduates then move to London to find work.

    If we turn our approach to Public Services on its head and become less reactive and more preventative, could Universities be crucial to creating a new generation of social productivity?

    If we are to change society for the better then institutions and their communities need to embed social responsibility in to every action they take]. Maybe if we can get the 2.5 million people within the Higher Education system working towards a more social economy, others will have no choice but to follow.

    You can find out more about the work of our City Growth Commission who are investigating what is needed to enable cities such as Manchester to thrive.

    Our network of 27,000 Fellows has networks including our North West Region and Social Entrepreneurs Group. If you are not already a Fellow and would like to find out more, you can email me at

    Mark Hall is a Fellowship Development Coordiantor at the RSA


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