Not all enterprise is private

Adam O'Boyle outlines how student-led third-sector bodies can offer institutions social and financial benefits

March 15, 2012

We are living through the most dramatic transformation of universities in recent times. With individuals making significantly higher contributions through tuition fees, the sector will no longer rely on the public purse, and private enterprise is coming to the fore.

So far, attention has focused on the public-private dichotomy. The role of the voluntary sector and social enterprise has been neglected, despite the fact that both play an ever more important role in higher education, particularly in the areas of public and community engagement.

The idea of community-sourced projects replacing top-down public-service provision is in tune with the government's intention of building a Big(ger) Society. Student Hubs, an independent charity, has been working in higher education for the past five years to transform student volunteering and social action. In seven universities across the South of England, our "hubs" carry out many community-facing functions, from managing volunteers and hosting conferences on social and environmental issues to supporting student-led ethical campaigns and projects. We also provide a programme that helps graduates find social-change careers.

Although this work is supported in part by universities, our main sources of funding are corporate sponsors, trusts, foundations and, crucially, the social enterprise model of self-generated income. In Oxford, we have opened a £1 million centre for student social change that generates income by renting out office and events space and by running a cafe/bar/restaurant that serves locally sourced food to students and locals alike. In this way, it promotes community interaction while providing sustainable funding for our work.

Entering a partnership with such community-engagement projects and voluntary organisations could provide universities with a new funding stream. That, however, is not the only, let alone the most important, benefit we have to offer institutions.

First and foremost, we are student-led, which allows us to be innovative and entrepreneurial. Also, students are close to the community, having forged strong links and roles within them.

Second, we "belong" to both campus and community. Students view us as part of the university, while our diverse funding sources and partnerships give us enough independence to be seen as accessible to local people. One likely impact of the shift in university funding is that the wider public will concede its position as the majority stakeholder in higher education. This makes it more crucial than ever that we build bridges between institutions and their communities - to call on the private purse, universities must be able to demonstrate their public value to build a culture of philanthropy.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly in the current climate, we are highly cost-effective. We are able to leverage grants through corporate and voluntary-sector partners, and we have achieved economies of scale by delivering a programme of work across many different universities at once.

There are many voluntary-sector organisations providing independent public-engagement work: Cambridge Student Community Action has been coordinating volunteering at the University of Cambridge for 40 years; Students in Free Enterprise works internationally with universities to get students building independent businesses part-time during their studies; Relays (Regional Educational Legacy for Arts and Youth Sport), which runs out of the organisation Universities South West, has created more than 5,000 volunteering opportunities for students since 2008.

There may be a trend towards increasing numbers of university partnerships with voluntary providers. One of the institutions we work with recently closed its own volunteering centre and turned to us, seeing that we offer a new model through which it can fulfil its obligations to the community. As the sector finds its feet on uncertain ground, more and more universities may do the same. With changes in funding for higher education forcing institutions to rethink how they operate, we should be aware that there are promising solutions outside the private sector.

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