What Questions Still Need To Be Answered About the Social Purpose University?


Social purpose is an area that many universities are grappling with. Fiona Walsh shares what questions were sparked from Student Hubs’ Conference on the social purpose university, and what the solutions may be.

On Wednesday 24 January 2024, 55 delegates came together in Birmingham to explore the theme of the social purpose university at Student Hubs’ 2024 conference.

The event aimed to kickstart conversations about how universities, students and their third sector partners could further social purpose at UK institutions, and learn from the exciting practice already happening at different stages across the country.

With Student Hubs’ over 15 years of experience in the sector delivering social action activities, seeing the rise and fall of government and university agendas around youth social action, place-based civic engagement, and levelling up has left us with one key takeaway: as Impetus shared following their conference in January, collaboration is vital to making these ambitious plans a reality for universities, their students and the communities they serve.

But what other questions has our conference raised around social purpose, and what are the challenges and barriers faced in achieving a world where delivering on social purpose is at the heart of every UK university strategy?

Doing this work at scale

Throughout the conference we heard that many institutions had delivered successful pilot activities, and scaled these into long-term agendas committing to embed this work across their institutions. Kingston University shared about their Town House Strategy, and Greg Burke, Director of Place and Civic Engagement at Sheffield Hallam University, spoke in the conference’s panel event about the importance of social purpose being part of the ‘DNA of the institution’.

So the question this raises is not one of appetite from staff across professional services and academic teams to pilot and scale innovative place-based socially impactful work. The question is: where can the work go without significant buy-in from senior leaders at the institution?

As Paul Manners, Co-Director of the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement shared in his Wonkhe piece with Mark Peace on service learning: “The strategic leadership required to design inclusive learning and research which maximises value for our students, for partners and for wider society is perhaps the single greatest challenge we currently face as a sector, as we grapple with huge economic pressures and fragile trust and understanding of what the sector is for.”

In order to successfully do this work at scale, what is required is a whole institution approach which reconciles the economic pressures, the internal culture behind this work, and is able to see out the long-term strategic vision needed to take this work beyond pilots and into day-to-day delivery for students and communities.

What social purpose means to the institution

Many universities state that their vision as a university includes tackling social injustice, which may include various areas such as sustainability, social mobility, equitable solutions and access to provision, and knowledge exchange. But as Nigel Ball, Director of the Social Purpose Lab at UAL shared in his plenary, without a clear definition of what social purpose means specifically to the institution, the university’s ability to do meaningful work in this area – and crucially, to embed it in the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), metrics and success barometers which universities are looking to deliver on – is always going to be limited. Universities need to answer this question in order to make any meaningful strides in this space.

Social purpose shouldn’t mean the same thing to every institution. This would be a disservice to the diversity and complexity of the local and regional contexts which universities sit within, and which they should be partners in engaging with through student and community co-creation and collaboration. Over the past few years universities have created and signed civic university agreements and student futures manifestos, and are designing Access and Participation Plans (APPs) which seek to address the myriad of challenges faced by students and communities in their area. This is a success.

But what is lacking broadly across the sector is the strategic vision which pulls these all together, seeing them not as disparate strands of siloed work, but a holistic approach which sees faculties working in true collaboration, efficiently mapping what activity is happening from the university and how it serves that institution’s definition of what social purpose means to them. We need to get specific about what is being set out to be achieved, and how we are going to get there. Graduate outcomes and graduate destinations should also be part of this conversation, and the local landscape of the labour market those universities are situated in, such as the role of universities in encouraging public services careers, as shared by Claire Taylor, Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive at Plymouth Marjon University.

Using ‘new power’ to make a difference

One of the biggest questions that naturally emerged from the conference was that of the power of our delegates, many of which had roles relating to civic and community engagement, academic leads, head of partnerships and public affairs. Jonathan Grant, Director of Different Angles and author of ‘The New Power University’ (as reviewed by Wonkhe’s Debbie McVitty), spoke in his keynote address and panel about the role of ‘new power’ versus ‘old power’ in conversation with Wonkhe’s Sunday Blake, and the influence we can have through ‘new power’.

‘New power’ is the idea that as a collective social group, we are able to organise and challenge in a way that can dismantle the ‘old power’ way of doing things at our institutions. Ultimately where our focus should be is on influencing those who are reluctant to make change in these areas through the power of the voice of the many, creating champions across an institution to the point that denying the flood of change is impossible.

Professor Sonia Kumar provided an example of this in her work with CENTRE (Community Engagement Network in Education, Research and Civic Engagement) at the University of Leeds. This interdisciplinary group seeks to deliver on social purpose across a variety of academic courses and professional services areas, with the ultimate goal of creating university-wide organisational change through their communities of practice and distributive leadership.

This is a powerful approach, but cannot emerge overnight. In a time of recruitment crisis, staff transition and change in our universities, building champions who can remain to influence this culture within a university is a challenging ask, but one that is necessary in order to bring about the structural and strategic changes to fully deliver on this vision.

What is needed to make this work a reality is allies. We need to learn from each other, demonstrate the evidence of success, listen to our students and communities about what is needed, and make a long-term commitment to change despite changes in government, policy, strategy, and attitudes.

At Student Hubs, even if the sessions of the day provoked more questions than answers, what the conference told us is that we want to do this work together, and that our mission of mainstreaming student social action has never been more important for the students and communities we work with through our university partnerships.

Across the university sector, what we (and the multitude of third sector partner organisations working across UK universities) are aiming to build is a roadmap to get us into the future we want to see, if only because it is the right thing to do in our social purpose and duty. We know universities share our vision for this, and there is a lot of hope amidst the current turmoil in the sector for what the social purpose university will look like moving forward.

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