Vice Chancellor opens social and solidarity economy conference at York St John

By | February 24, 2016

Professor Karen Stanton, the Vice Chancellor of York St John University’s opening speech for the recent  social and solidarity economy conference. It is reported here in full under the conference video.


Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, good morning and a very warm welcome to York St John University. Welcome, too, to the beautiful city of York, one of England’s most historic and ancient metropolitan centres. I very much hope you enjoy your stay here.

Karen StantonIt is such a great pleasure to see so many visitors and contributors from around the world, including Latin America, Canada, continental Europe, Africa – and the UK of course. Our truly international group also includes 23 delegates from the British Council as part of their Students for Social Impact Scheme. We are also extremely grateful to the European Union for generously funding the Erasmus Mundus Social Economy in Higher Education project which culminates in this three-day conference.

It is also a great pleasure to welcome you in my capacity as the new Vice Chancellor of York St John University. Many of you, of course, will have attended the summer school which took place over the weekend as a precursor to the conference and, as a result, probably know your way around the University better than I do! Why? Well, let me share a secret with you: this is my very first day at York St John. Actually, I have only officially been in post for just over one hour – but it is wonderful to be able to begin my new role among such a distinguished gathering and on such an auspicious occasion.

Your conference theme – Developing Social Entrepreneurship Cultures through Cross-Sector Collaboration – could not be more timely, nor more significant. Just last week, the world’s stock markets were in turmoil as the faltering Chinese economy tried to correct itself and the price of oil fell to a new low. It was a stark reminder of just how inter-dependent and fragile the global economy can be, but it also highlighted the enormous significance of the project we have come together to discuss: the potential impact of socially sustainable alternatives to the current world economic order.

This week’s conference will examine this proposition in detail and address the following question: “How can Higher Education foster interactions between the current economic systems – public, private and social – to promote social entrepreneurship cultures for sustainable development in our communities?”

It is a big question. And over the next three days you will be exploring and discussing potential answers as you consider the outcome of three years’ effort and engagement in this project, which has been led by York St John University. I know the last three years has been a challenging, fascinating and inspirational journey for the York St John team – as it has, I am sure, for all of you here who have been involved in the project.

As we gather together for the culmination of this extensive undertaking, I would like to emphasise a point I make in the conference handbook: what takes place here over the next three days will be a fitting celebration of the coming together of a significant body of knowledge, research and experience which we profoundly hope will have lasting effects for, and well beyond, the participating individuals and institutions.

You may well ask why was a relatively small university in the north of England chosen to lead such a major international project. Well, the answer’s not difficult to find – it is rooted in this University’s deep commitment to community which stretches back almost two centuries and is enshrined in the values of our founding colleges.

That commitment is also reinforced today in the University’s Strategic Plan for 2020 and in our mission statement which, among its aspirations, promises to make “a positive contribution to the world”. The importance of community, collaboration and partnerships – which this conference addresses – have consistently been major themes and objectives for York St John University and are absolutely central to our mission and values.

We also bring leadership from experience. Particularly experience of the peaks and troughs of a highly developed economy. Experience of how the great industrial centres here in the north of England flourished only to gradually collapse. And how innovation and inventiveness has seen our former manufacturing economy replaced by alternatives such as the service economy, the knowledge economy, the growing digital economy, and now – increasingly – the social economy. In our own small way, right here on campus, over the last five years we have also supported 60 small enterprise initiatives through our business ‘incubator’ in the Phoenix Centre, and it may interest you to know that a growing number of these are social enterprises.

In fact, I was delighted to note that four social enterprise projects from the Phoenix Centre feature as one of the most visited posts on the project’s blog, which includes a fascinating range of social enterprise case studies from around the world. One of the York St John social enterprises is a project to ‘rebrand’ dementia and remove the social stigma surrounding this dreadful and debilitating illness. Against the economic context of this week’s conference, it is interesting to observe that this illness, which has been so prevalent in advanced economies, now afflicts an increasing number of low and middle income countries which account for 58% of all cases worldwide, according to the 2015 World Alzheimer Report just published.[1]

But let me return to the blog which has helped chart your remarkable journey to date. It was gratifying to note the diverse nature and quality of the education debate that has also been taking place online. You are all familiar with the blog’s content, of course, but this was the first time I have had a chance to gain a brief insight into the detail of what you have been researching and discussing, and it has given me a greater appreciation of the significance of the work in which you have been engaged and the importance of continuing these endeavours beyond the formal lifespan of the project itself.

Although this particular social economy project may be new to me, the concept of social enterprise and social entrepreneurship is an area in which I have long held an interest. In my previous role as Deputy Vice Chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University, I was privileged to meet and work alongside Professor Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Laureate – and indeed one of the world’s most decorated citizens – who will be known to many of you for his pioneering work in microfinance.

In his role as GCU’s Chancellor, Professor Yunus helped my last University to facilitate the launch of his Grameen bank-style lending system in the UK. And its first loans are now helping a number of small social enterprises to flourish in some of the poorest parts of Glasgow. The Grameen system, which earned Professor Yunus the honorific, the ‘Banker to the Poor’, has helped lift millions of people out of poverty worldwide and now operates in more than 80 countries.

Since Professor Yunus first launched his micro-lending concept in the late Seventies, much has changed of course and the social economy has become more sophisticated with the flourishing of social enterprises such as credit unions, not-for-profits, and co-operative, community-driven business initiatives in both developing and developed economies alike. For the last three years, you have been critically examining the role of Higher Education in promoting teaching, research and practices around this evolving and increasingly thriving global social economy.

At York St John, we believe – as I am sure you all do – that universities have a clear and distinctive role in promoting both social entrepreneurship cultures and cross-sector partnerships. Such cross-sector collaboration is absolutely essential and is at the very core of social entrepreneurship cultures.

Only by bringing together our shared knowledge, resources and experience can we hope to overcome the monumental societal challenges of today.

Such collaborations, of course, need to be based on the values inherent in social entrepreneurship. These include mutual respect, reciprocity, solidarity, common good, and respect for the environment. Over the course of the conference, you will be presented with a range of practical case studies, research and best practices about cross-sector partnerships which create social value within communities and have a positive impact on developing social entrepreneurship and curricular innovation within Higher Education.

But why is the social economy so important in a Higher Education context? Well, the project leadership team here at York St John is quite clear on this: universities should offer a broad and in-depth knowledge and understanding of the various ways of organising economic life. These should be focused on a people-centred approach to economic value and Higher Education should provide a level of education and training which also serves the community. If our Higher Education is to remain relevant, the team argues that it needs to review its ethos, purpose and curricula. It needs to consider human well-being as well as wealth creation.

That is the proposition that has under-pinned this three-year project which has sought to gain an in-depth knowledge and insight into the nature, origins and practice of people-centred economic approaches and make these findings more accessible to HE students. The project has also sought to understand how such approaches could interact with other economic systems and mechanisms, such as corporate social responsibility, to enhance the quality of human development overall.

One of the principal outcomes of this project will be an invaluable handbook to be used for curriculum design and enhancement in the group of universities and their associates who have been involved in this endeavour. The handbook is open-source, which will allow universities and social entrepreneurs to update it and share their findings. And like the entire project itself – including the forensic examination, debate and, no doubt, intense discussions that will take place over the course of this week’s conference – the handbook is a perfect example of what the Erasmus Mundus project has sought to explore: cross-sector collaboration at its very best.

As well as the galaxy of international delegates here today, the project has also gained the support of the United Nations, the Alliance of Civilization unit, the Erasmus Mundus Students and Alumni Association and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

It is abundantly clear that the world is already watching and waiting for the outcome of your three days of deliberations. It only remains for me, therefore, to wish you an enjoyable and stimulating conference and I would now like to hand you over to your MC, Dr Mike Calvert, who is eagerly waiting to get the programme underway and introduce the first of your esteemed keynote speakers.

Thank you ladies and gentlemen. I hope you enjoy the conference, and our splendid facilities here at York St John University, and I look forward to meeting up with many of you again in the course of the week.