Opinion

To become ‘anchor institutions’, colleges should operate like social enterprises

14 Feb 2021, 5:00

social enterprises

To articulate its real worth, the FE sector needs to emulate social enterprises and measure its social value in ways government can’t ignore, writes Louise Wolsey

Further education contributes an enormous amount to the UK’s productivity agenda but as a sector, we seem to struggle to articulate this in a way that has resonance or can influence central government policy agendas.  

This means that a large part of what colleges do, beyond simply “delivering qualifications”, has not been fully recognised over the years and disregards the positive impact that FE has socially and economically across entire regions.  

Encouragingly, the FE sector has started to reflect on this collectively over the past year, through the Independent Commission on the College of the Future and its recognition of colleges as “anchor Institutions”. 

But as a sector we have yet to demonstrate true “anchor impact” beyond the usual outputs and outcomes that all colleges deliver.  

To maximise our potential as a sector, we need to unlock opportunity within our communities and add real value locally by thinking and working differently.  

One way to do this could be for colleges to operate more like social enterprises – the definition of which already sounds exactly like an FE college: “An organisation whose main goal is promoting social or environmental welfare rather than making or maximising profits.”

But what does this actually mean and how can social impact truly be measured in a quantifiable and recognised way?  

Measuring social value

The National Themes Outcomes and Measures (TOMs) framework, which was officially launched in 2017, provides a reporting standard for measuring social value. It sets out the areas that have real resonance with our communities.

  1. Jobs, by promoting local skills and employment  
  2. Growth, by supporting responsible regional business
  3. Social, by creating healthier, safer and more resilient communities
  4. Environment, by decarbonising and safeguarding our world
  5. Innovation, by promoting social innovation

 London South East Colleges’ latest five-year strategy sets out our planned transition to a social enterprise, rather than remaining as “just a college”.

As an £80 million education group, these are big plans. But we know that any impact has to be fully quantifiable.   

With this in mind, we are working with the Social Value Portal, an online solution to help us measure and report on our social contribution in a way that enables us to quantify, in financial terms, the full impact we are having on our communities. 

This involves translating some of our actions, such as local supply chain spend, work experience and community projects, into their equivalent value.   

For example, every hour of staff volunteering has a social value equal to £16.70 and a week of student work experience is equal to £158.23. 

Over 2019-20, our group generated £31.75 million in additional social value, beyond the economic benefits that result from our students progressing into employment.  

Encourage staff to think differently

To make the shift to thinking and acting as an anchor institution, it is crucial to embed the principles of creating social value through every layer of a business.    

This is not necessarily about doing more, but encouraging staff to think and act differently, such as embedding social value in procurement strategies, setting targets to maximise the number of local, small businesses within a supply chain or designing new work experience opportunities that support local issues.

In our case we have linked our internal performance management systems and student career frameworks to the TOMS framework.

We still of course have some way to go, but we are starting to see a cultural shift and real enthusiasm from staff.  

This approach has, in effect, created what in the world of business would be a corporate social responsibility strategy. But this isn’t an “add on”. This is our business now. It is how we operate, generating quantifiable, nationally endorsed measures of social value.

It’s early days, but we often wonder: what if the FE sector were to adopt this approach across the board? Could it help us better articulate the significant social value we generate every day across the country?    

With the social value framework now being applied to new central government procurements from January 1 this year, we think it’s a step in the right direction.

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One comment

  1. Andy Forbes

    This is really interesting and refreshing. We are all so used to FE Colleges being judged through the lens of the Ofsted inspection framework – absolutely understandable given the educational mission at the heart of all colleges. But Ofsted doesn’t capture all the other vital things Colleges do – it’s like judging a car solely by the performance of its engine and ignoring every other aspect. This TOMS framework looks accessible and well-focused on the social and economic benefits colleges generate.