Universities need research funding. Indeed, I would argue that they need more of it if the country is to realise the full economic and social potential of the excellent research that is done in our higher education institutions – and not just those in the Russell Group.
Universities need investment funding, such as the Higher Education Innovation Fund, so they can pump prime innovations and entrepreneurial initiatives. In Northampton we are deploying our fund allocation to ensure we can deliver our unique social enterprise mission. Other universities use their allocation in other imaginative ways, investing in the delivery of future economic benefits to the country as a whole.
If research and investment funding are ‘project funding’ – and I am not sure they are – then universities need it. What I mean by project funding is money that is won by or given to universities (and other organisations of course) to deliver some form of discrete, non-research project. The now defunct Regional Development Agencies and the European Social Fund have both been sources of large amounts of project funding.
I have a problem with project funding – it comes with a requirement to deliver outputs and outcomes. These outputs and outcomes have to be defined in advance and a detailed plan for their delivery has to be submitted with the project bid. Of course, it is inevitable and proper that the custodians of taxpayers’ money (which is what project funding really is) strive to get the maximum benefit from its expenditure. However, the mechanistic use of outputs and outcomes as targets has two potentially negative effects. First, targets drive behaviour, and this frequently leads to project delivery teams doing things to hit outputs, rather than deliver lasting and real benefit. One of Northampton’s recent PhD students concluded that the funded project she studied (a multi-million pound, regional scheme) had “delivered results that were good for the contract, but negative for the clients”! Second, and more importantly, targets often stifle enterprise and entrepreneurship.
In June this year, The University of Northampton unveiled its new strategy that commits the whole institution to developing social entrepreneurs and social enterprises. It is a very ambitious strategy, involving whole organisation change and huge investments of expertise and capital in setting up new social enterprises, designed to directly improve the lives of people – socially, economically, environmentally and culturally. We have deliberately not sought project funding to help us deliver our mission.
Social enterprises are businesses. They are different from normal businesses in that they have a social purpose and aim to deliver social impact. But they are a business and, unless they are led by customer focused, hard-working, creative, dynamic and flexible entrepreneurs, they go bust. If social enterprises go bust, they can’t do good. What Northampton needs to be a successful, high-impact, socially enterprising university is just about the opposite of what you often get with funded projects.
We will be seeking investment in some of our new social enterprise ventures, but we will be seeking it from the market. Who needs project funding? Not the socially enterprising University.
This blog was originally published on The Guardian Online’s Higher Education Network (26/09/2011) – http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/sep/26/university-project-funding-social-entrepreneurship?INTCMP=SRCH
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