“Big is beautiful, small is often very inefficient” - Nick Petford, vice-chancellor, University of Northampton (UK)

31st Oct 2013
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Nick Petford, Vice Chancellor of the University of Northampton (UK), was in India recently to launch a joint venture with the University of Madras and explore academic relationships with other Indian universities. He interacted with SocialStory on the phone first, and then subsequently on email. Among other things, Petford spoke about his trip, lessons from the UK for Indian social enterprises, the significance of being the only UK university that is part of the Ashoka U (an initiative by Ashoka: Innovators for the Public that recognizes leading institutions in social innovation education) program and the role of universities in promoting social enterprise.

Nick Petford, Vice Chancellor of the University of Northampton. Pic courtesy: www.northamptonchron.co.uk

Petford is a distinguished administrator, researcher, academic, author and volcanologist. He was previously Pro Vice Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) at Bournemouth University and before that Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Kingston University. His industry stints include British Petroleum (BP), DFID (UK) and CONICYT, the National Research Council for Chile. He has held visiting research appointments at the Universities of Michigan and Vermont (USA) and NASA and is currently visiting professor at Macquarie University (Australia) and The Open University.

In 2005 the BBC featured the work of his research team in the documentary ‘Krakatoa Revealed’ and was also involved in the Channel 4 documentary ‘The Volcano that Stopped Britain’ based on the 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano. He has worked with the National Geographic and Sky News as well. With the Guardian Higher Education Network he writes a regular blog and is a Director at Floodstop, a company that manufactures and sells flood defence barriers.

SS:  What was the purpose of your trip to India?

To launch a new Masters course in Environmental Management.

SS: Tell us about the MSc joint venture with the University of Madras.

NP: The course is a joint venture between both Universities. The partnership is exciting and is targeted at professionals in the environmental sector interested in upskilling. The course is delivered through a mixture of blended and on-line learning with staff from Northampton visiting twice yearly.

SS: What is the significance of becoming the only UK university to recognized by the Ashoka U program?

NP: This designation recognizes the whole University’s commitment to social entrepreneurship, and puts the University amongst a small group of just 22 Universities globally. This recognises the breadth and depth of our commitment, beyond a module or elective in social enterprise, to a whole institution being socially innovative. The Ashoka U recognition gives Northampton the assurance that its social enterprise strategy is delivering world-class impact. It also gives us a benchmark against which to measure our work in the future. We do not just teach social enterprise to a few students, we practice social enterprise throughout the University: in the way we procure goods and services in ways that deliver social value; the placement opportunities we give our students; the support in starting social enterprises we provide to both staff and students; and in our support for the social enterprise sector in the UK through our Inspire2Enterprise initiative.

SS: What can India learn from the UK- especially how the government is involved, role of academia, institutions like Big Society and Social Stock Exchange, and financial instruments like social impact bonds (SIBs)?

NP: There is no UK institution called ‘Big Society’, this term refers to a concept of community involvement developed by the government in 2010. The term has lost currency and is not normally used now.

The UK government has worked hard, involving politicians from all major parties, to create an environment in which social enterprises can start up, grow and succeed as sustainable organizations. Much work has been done to enable social enterprises to move from a reliance on grants for mainly small-scale work to taking on investment so they can increasingly deliver large impact services.

The key lessons from the UK’s experience would be:

1. Make sure ‘social enterprise’ is not a party political concept

2. Ensure legislation gives permission for social enterprises to develop and become sustainable

3. Create a national infrastructure to support the development of new social enterprises

4. Ensure funding in the form of investment is available

5. Encourage social enterprises to scale up and deliver significant services/impacts. Big is beautiful, small is often very inefficient

We do not expect all these lessons will be relevant to all countries

The UK has learned from India on issues such as micro-finance and community based social entrepreneurship, so the exchange of experience is very fruitful.

SS: Elaborate on all the programs that the University of Northampton is involved in to boost social entrepreneurship?

NP: The University has an Enterprise Club that runs the Big Bonanza scheme. This scheme runs large scale social enterprise awareness raising events when students arrive at the University, then supports and encourages students that have entered the ‘funnel’ to start up their own social enterprises.

Some degree programs in the University now run their own social enterprise, as part of the curriculum. For example, our podiatry clinic now provides treatment to the public that is charged for. The income is used to enable students and staff to provide subsidized or free care to the homeless and disadvantaged.

All staff are required to identify how their research work can add new knowledge to the social enterprise sector

The University also runs the Inspire2Enterprise service, please see www.inspire2enterprise.org for details. This service now has over 4,500 clients and is able to source placements and employment for students and graduates. It is a major initiative and a key part of Northampton’s work to boost social entrepreneurship.

SS: Why is it important that universities support social entrepreneurship in India?

NP: Having thousands of graduates who are familiar with social innovation and can apply these principles to their workplaces will have a significant impact. At the University we did some research for the UK Government Cabinet Office on the evidence for the increase in the numbers of students and graduates involved in social enterprise.

SS: Why is social entrepreneurship the need of the hour to solve India’s development problems?

NP: Governments, businesses and charities have made massive strides over the last hundred years to improve the living conditions of millions of people. Social enterprises operate and thrive in the gaps between those sectors, working where profit, taxation and philanthropy struggle to reach.

SS: Going forward will we see more partnerships with Indian universities in connection with social entrepreneurship?

NP: Yes. We have had contact from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and hope to be doing some joint work with them soon.

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