Volume 8: The Role of Higher Education in Enhancing Social Enterprise

Since the internet age began, higher education has become more global. The internet has allowed the learner and educator to connect globally, or, as Manuel Castells famously coined the phrase, to become a ‘Network Society’ (Castells, 1996). This network society has developed a new wave of economic, social, political, and cultural formations. Institutions are inherent in this development: public, private, and non-government organisations. These institutions shape the way society works. A social enterprise is now a common feature in today’s world, given the way it can influence society. In many countries across the world, social enterprise is perceived as a real problem solver, which now delivers a series of services in government. In this article, it is our particular interest to provide a brief overview of the interlocking relationships between social enterprise and higher education in a global setting. The work that is presented in this article comes from the findings of a UK India Education Research Initiative (UKIERI) project that the authors are currently undertaking.

The Global Connections of Social Enterprise

The mantra “The business of business is business”, offered by Milton Friedman in 1970, is losing its legitimacy. Today, universities are challenging the old paradigms of business schools that prioritise profit maximisation as the bottom line of firms, as preached by Friedman and others. Now, more than ever before, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are engaging with the social enterprise sector in order to discover sustainable solutions for concerns around economic and social disparity and justice.

The collateral damage caused by the financial crisis of 2008, such as the fall out of hyper and lopsided globalisation and externalities, perpetuated the reckless capitalist model of development, which made many question the deep-seated premises of the contemporary economic system. Consequently, we are observing the discrediting of established ways, and serious doubts are arising about the faults in the much-celebrated idea of the ‘invisible hand’ in the economy. Solving critical global problems with the impenetrability of the usual silo-based economic rationalisation fails. Therefore, resolving these deep problems calls for sweeping alternatives that are unlike the conventional policymakers’ approach.

A social enterprise is a business model where the overarching aim is a significant social impact. Social enterprises are businesses that trade in order to address social and environmental problems. They generate income like other businesses, but social enterprises reinvest all or most of their profits into their social mission. They generate jobs, decrease inequalities, and are responsible for their activities, collectively blending the private sector’s entrepreneurial skills with public sector values and larger welfare concerns. Many recognise the model of social enterprise as having the capacity to add to national economic growth, and as a structure that optimistically contributes to the community. So, the vital distinction between social and conventional enterprise is apparent in the foundational ethos of the undertaking and the associated market impressions.

Mohammed Yunus, one of the leading advocates of the social business concept, insists that social business holds the potential to redeem society from the failed promises of free-market enterprise. In Bangladesh, organisations such as BRAC or Grameen have assumed the roles that were absent or ineffectively pursued by governments. In many Latin American, African, and Asian countries, the political heritage of weak and dishonest governments and public sectors has encouraged entrepreneurial solutions to social and economic problems. In India, for example, many social enterprises address the huge gaps that exist between formal legislation and social reality.

The history of social enterprises indicates that they are, by design, nimble and innovative organisations, ready to act on any of their constituents’ emerging social or economic concerns. Because of these characteristics, social enterprises contribute significantly to social innovation, constantly developing new products and services designed to meet social needs. A huge proportion of social enterprises work to achieve systemic change by introducing new business models, changing value chains, activating unused talents, and exploiting unused resources.

Higher Education in the New Global Arena

Higher education plays a vital role in a country’s economy. From the outset, a university is there to create knowledge for the students, in terms of research, and teaching and learning. Higher education can be the basis for creating new public/social policy ideas for the government. There has always been an expectation that a university should have an intrinsic role in the local community, which is important, as many potential students who live in the area have the option to go to their local university. Moreover, universities today are seen as income generators within a local community, and most importantly, act as a linchpin between different institutions (public, private, and non-government organisations). In the research that was undertaken for the UKIERI project, this was found to be the case, and as one social entrepreneur noted:

“Yeah, they’re really successful, aren’t they? They’ve got a business integrator, you don’t need to be a graduate or in fact, associated with the University, although there are a good few people who engage with them initially via [the university] and they’re outstanding aren’t they? They’ve actually grown. I think they’re the main hub in the region aren’t they, for actually growing businesses in that region, and they simply offer business premises, networking, advice and services there, presumably people training with the University.” – (Focus Group, Participant 1, 2018)

As the above quotation demonstrates, universities play an exciting role in economic and societal development and are seen as powerhouses that create new economic, social, political, and cultural networks that link together with different institutions. Moreover, one of the biggest changes in recent times is the way that universities interconnect globally, with the phrase ‘Think Global, Act Local’ particularly pertinent in the higher education sector, now, more than ever before. In the authors’ research, it was discovered that social enterprises are taking a greater role in solving some of the biggest social issues of the day. In countries like the United Kingdom and India, the governments perceive that social enterprise organisations have a better understanding of key social policy areas, with a deep understanding of the local community. Universities, therefore, are seen as the first port of call when developing a social enterprise, as many social science students (i.e. business, criminology, economics, geography, sociology, politics, and psychology) have opportunities to engage with social enterprise. Furthermore, universities have created additional professional development training for people who are employed in the social enterprise sector; Higher Education Institutions have worked closely within this sector to undertake academic research with a positive impact on the community.

Social Enterprise in Practice: Making the Connections

Higher Education Institutions clearly have a responsibility to initiate and develop best practice. Universities are viewed as:

“…anchors, shapers and innovators of our communities and countries. They foster cultural, social and economic vitality. HEIs help to build an informed citizenry, more tolerant societies and more participative communities. They generate and nurture the skills, research and innovation that spur economic development and shape the future…Engaging with social enterprise gives HEIs an opportunity to interact closely with local businesses and communities to create inclusive and financially sustainable solutions to pressing local and international issues.” – (British Council, 2016, p. 4)

This was reflected by participants in a study conducted by Halsall, Oberoi, and Snowden (2018) as part of the UK India Research Initiative:

“I think we ought to see the University as a really powerful asset and it’s how we utilise that. One of the aims of many Social Enterprises is about getting people into employment and into work. University is, you know, it’s got the links with employers, it’s got the, it’s got the intelligence to know where the growth jobs are, the jobs of the future are. How about supporting Social Enterprise to identify people who can access the training to go into jobs that are going to be meaningful.  They can then take that employment back.” – (Focus Group, Participant 2, 2018)

The pedagogical basis of Social Enterprise must be constructed in such a way that it takes advantage of the potential for stimulating entrepreneurial skills, abilities, intuition, and insight, and equipping budding entrepreneurs for executing change. Recently Halsall, Oberoi, and Snowden (2020) assert that in addition to developing the traditional learner-teacher relationship, radical educational restructuring needs to take place and that this should take two forms: (1) changes in the curriculum; and (2) changes in the techniques of teaching and learning. The following illustration presents a conceptualisation of this remodeling:

Figure 1: Re-modelling Social Enterprise Education

This remodeling of enterprise education is developing at various levels globally. The annual report of the UK-India Research Initiative (2019),  Developing Inclusive Creative Economies (DICE) (2019) and the British Council (2016 & 2017) illustrate various examples of good practice within the sector. Two projects, in particular, illustrate how this remodeling is influencing the development of social enterprise: A collaborative project between Kirorimal College, University of Delhi, and the University of Huddersfield. This project formed a collaboration with, and working in partnership with a number of stakeholders, including new and existing Social enterprises developed a series of educational tools and packages that advanced social enterprise within a number of different contexts. The second example is that of the Tamil Nadu Polytechnic College, Madurai India. The aim of this project was to promote the use of ICT and smart classrooms to enhance teaching and learning. This project achieved success by noting a 30% improvement in teaching materials, a 40% increase in staff using integrated teaching methods, a 40% increase in acquisition of knowledge outside traditional sources of information, and a 10% overall increase in academic performance.

Whilst these two projects were designed in isolation, together they offer a complementary solution to challenges presented in contemporary society. It is clear, educational restructuring is required to enhance practice, and this together with appropriate use of ICT can generate significant change.


Undoubtedly, for social enterprise to develop successfully, and indeed for HEI’s to fulfill their role successfully then a symbiotic relationship must develop. Barnet (2018) suggests that universities continually evolve, but largely falling short of their potential and responsibilities in an ever-changing and challenging environment. Writing this paper in the climate of COVID-19, never more has this been so palpable.   François Bonnici Head of Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship at the World Economic Forum asserts that:

“Social entrepreneurs are critical to the response to and recovery from the COVID-19 crisis;  Social entrepreneurs solve market and government failures by serving excluded and vulnerable populations, which are most at risk to impacts of COVID-19. Decades of work in the impact sector are at stake during the economic crisis.”

In order to respond to this challenge, HEI’s must work in partnership with social enterprises and social entrepreneurs, they must be innovators of pedagogical change, and universities themselves must embrace this change if we are to respond effectively to the challenges presented this century. We close with a well-versed citation from Cook and Wankhade (2017 p. 95) assert: “it has to be the University that must provide the “bridge for the gap,” and “it has to be HEI’s (Higher Education Institution) that takes responsibility for this.”


About the Authors

Dr. Roopinder  Oberoi

Roopinder Oberoi is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of Delhi, India. She did her M.A, M.Phil, and Ph.D. from the University of Delhi. She specialises in the area of Political Science, Public Administration, Public policy and Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainable Development. In the Year 2009, she was awarded a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship by the University Grant Commission.

Michael Snowden

Michael Snowden is a Senior Lecturer in Mentoring Studies at the University of Huddersfield, the U.K. His research interests lie in the field of pedagogy, mentorship, social enterprise, curriculum enhancement, and learning. Michael is a regular speaker at national and international conferences concerned with the development of pedagogical strategies in various contexts.

Jamie P. Halsall

Jamie P. Halsall is a Reader in Social Sciences at the University of Huddersfield, the U.K. His research interests include communities, globalisation, higher education, public and social policy. Currently, Jamie is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Chartered Geographer of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded the Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy in January 2017.