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On purpose

Polly Mackenzie explains why all universities should have a social purpose officer

Is university just a left-wing conspiracy to take young people away from their families and render them woke, smug, indebted and unemployed? Read the newspapers these days and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it must be. Occasionally, science and technology research are lauded for their contribution to economic development, but the story of the wider role that universities play in economic, social and democratic life has been sidelined almost completely. This is a catastrophe and university leaders need to fight back. Joining the social purpose movement is how we do it.

This summer, the British Standards Institution issued a guidance document for “purpose-driven organisations”, designed to help any institution get to grips with the most fundamental question of them all: why do we need to exist? The document starts by defining a simple meta-purpose: the “long-term wellbeing of all people and the planet”. Now, that’s as high-level a goal as you can imagine, but the guidance goes on to set out how an organisation can identify its own part. This summer, I started as chief social purpose officer at the University of the Arts London (UAL), and my job is to help do precisely this.

The first thing any institution needs to do is map out how what it does makes the world a better place—in other words, define its “theory of change”. Of course, it’s possible that our university—or yours—is not making the world better; if that’s the case, we can all shut up shop. But my starting presumption is that education and research—including in creative disciplines—create real human value. Once we’re able to define and quantify that value, we can start to shout about it instead of being cowed by the fear that we really are a left-wing conspiracy (or a consumerist con).

Perhaps some of it seems obvious: universities educate people and do research. End of story. But I believe we need to go much further, establishing and evidencing precisely how education and research contribute. What is the logic chain from our activities to the human and planetary flourishing we want to see? Only once you understand this can you spot where the breaks are in the chain, and work to fix them.

Need for creativity

At UAL we’re starting that work, to map out the value we create, as a community of 20,000 students and 5,000 staff. To fully orientate an organisation around its purpose, you must co-create a shared understanding of what it is. But some things are already clear: our core contribution is through the creative industries and disciplines in which we play a fundamental part. Our strapline is a simple statement: the world needs creativity. Why?

First, creative endeavour contributes directly to human flourishing. There is strong evidence of a link between creative practice and wellbeing. We enable our students and graduates to thrive but also to create meaningful and joyful experiences for millions of people.

Second, creative endeavour is an essential component of how we solve humanity’s problems. The creative skill set can help prompt new ideas. And through user research, communications, graphic design, storytelling and more, creatives can help new ideas get adopted.

Finally, creative endeavour is a huge part of a healthy economy (our creative industries are about 6 per cent of the economy), a healthy society (in which we learn about one another through story and art) and a healthy democracy (in which we express and debate ideas openly).

The role UAL plays in training creatives, and researching the future of our industries and disciplines, means I am confident we are already contributing to human and planetary wellbeing. But here’s the thing: it’s not enough. When you become a purpose-led organisation, it’s not enough to just figure out how you’re creating value; you must strain every sinew to maximise that value.

We need to listen to our critics—internal and external. Are we educating the wrong people? Are we shutting out our local communities? Are we living by our values when it comes to what we buy, how we reduce our emissions and who we employ? Are we allowing our graduates to flounder without good work? And, most importantly, how do we get better on every one of these metrics?

Social values

The purpose movement sits comfortably with other social value movements finding footholds in the higher education sector. Civic universities, for example, are committed to creating value in their communities: buying locally, training locally and being a structural part of their local economies. Athena Swan and the Race Equality Charter are helping universities challenge themselves to be inclusive in their employment, teaching and research practice.

What differentiates the purpose movement is one thing only: it requires putting purpose at the very centre of our work. A purpose-led university cannot treat social responsibility as a side hustle—something to do alongside the day-to-day business. In a purpose-led organisation, if the day-to-day business is not optimised for human and planetary wellbeing, you can’t just pay off the debt by doing something nice for your neighbours; you have to change what you do.

Let me give you an example. At UAL, we know we train designers who go out into unsustainable industries—like fashion—that have a huge problem with wasted materials, carbon emissions and exploitative employment practices. So we’re transforming our curriculum so that all our students leave with a profound understanding of sustainable and ethical practice. And we increasingly realise that we also need to be part of changing the industries in which our graduates will work, through our research, our knowledge exchange and our advocacy.

Universities have been cowed by criticism for too long. We need to fight back with a much clearer articulation of how, and in what ways, we make the world better. And then we need to use that confidence to be part of the great economic and environmental adaptation the world needs, if we are to thrive in the long term. I’d love to see every university appoint a chief social purpose officer to do that work. But it’s not about the job—it’s about the purpose. Is your university doing everything it can to contribute to equitable, long-term human and planetary wellbeing? If not, why not?

Polly Mackenzie is chief social purpose officer of the University of the Arts London and former chief executive of the think tank Demos.