Gassing With Young Folk – Student Views on Social Enterprise

Posted: 10 February 2014, in Blog

Gassing with young folk

I recently had the opportunity to chat to students about social enterprise. Their knowledge was patchy about social enterprise itself, Scottish success stories and our global leadership (if you believe the hype) in all things SE. There was however a general consensus on the values, norms and nature of social enterprise. Everyone agreed that social entrepreneurship is “a good thing”.

As to why we actually need social entrepreneurship/enterprise had a few of them struggling until ideas such as State and market failure and the winners and losers inherent in capitalism were added to the mix. No student raised the old co-op idea of independent collective action for mutual purposes. Most were ambivalent about trade unions as well.

The debate got interesting over all the usual issues; profit, governance, evil capitalists, “crap government” (their term) and whether “good capitalists” (their term) achieve more, by dint of their scale, than “mickey mouse” (their term) projects. I was becoming a bystander and enjoying their toing and froing and then someone asked about the BBC and another said they had worked for SERCO – and it was also “crap”.

Here is what I suggested they consider – based on an article in the Daily Telegraph by Michael White. He said that:

“The BBC, in some respects, may function as a business enterprise, but it is essentially a non-commercial body that receives public funding to allow it freedom from commercial pressures.” (Michael White Daily Telegraph 31 Jan 2014).

White did not explore governance etc but to my student chums that description of the BEEB chimed with their understanding of charities and social enterprises. They were unsure if the BBEB (or C4) is a social enterprise but they seemed comfortable with the entrepreneurial and mission ambiguity both of these broadcasters present.

As for SERCO, most had never heard of it but the ex- employee regaled them with his experiences of working for an outsourcer. To stir things a bit, I added in all the opprobrium SERCO has endured for falsification of contract outcomes and invoicing and generally cocking things up, like losing track of tagged offenders etc. I got a big reaction when I asked the students if the State should outsource to huge providers like SERCO and why they thought Govt does this. Sarcasm and cynicism you will be glad to hear abounds amongst our youth.

Funnily enough, the brighter ones then asked about charities and social enterprises being outsourcers for the State and was the low cost/wage model of Serco just what charities and social enterprises do too? Their view was, that if outsourcer staff are cheaper than public sector employees then of course Govt will outsource. The brightest then asked “but what does that mean and how does it affect the “good thing” status, reputation and image of social entrepreneurs/enterprises that do this too?

The gap between ethical and moral image and messages and commercial pressures and practices then became the real debate and we ended up with lines drawn between pragmatists and philosophers. Finally, I asked if any of them would consider setting up a social enterprise. No social entrepreneurs emerged and again, the brighter ones spoke of the problems/differences between acting as an individual and having to do things collectively. I’m tempted to suggest that academic group-work may have soured their experiences of working collectively but I do wonder where the next generation of social entrepreneurs will come from.

Tellingly, after the meeting, a few students remained to chat and they were all women. Their view was that women would be the future of social enterprise in Scotland, and the rest of the world. This was because under whatever system people find themselves living in, it is always women and their children who are at the bottom of the pile. They also made the distinction between women doing the real work and men being the “leaders” although they expressed it a little more forcefully than that. I can see a “gender and cultural determinants of social enterprise; workers and leaders” dissertation being worked on in the near future…

Young folk, don’t you just love them?


NOTE: This opinion piece blog does not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs of Social Enterprise Scotland.