Purpose and Universities

08/06/2016 11:05 | Updated 08 June 2016

What is purpose in the workplace all about? When Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says
young people today want to go home at night and not just talk about what they did but why, is that true? Has traditional Corporate Social Responsibility run its course? And are the millennial generation the only ones to take purpose in the workplace seriously? These are some of the issues raised in a new report Purpose in Practice looking at the views of 25 Business leaders on clarity, authenticity and the spectre of purpose wash - the cynical use of purpose as a trend by companies simply to maximise profits.


I was one of the leaders interviewed and put the case forward for universities as organisations where purpose lies at the very heart of our activities. Surely it is impossible to argue that mission-led organisations whose very existence is to provide education and undertake research for the betterment of all not to be led by purpose? Well, things might not be so clear cut. Universities face huge pressure to find new ways to generate income that may stray outside the traditional notions of mission and into purely commercial transactions simply to balance the books. Is this a kind of purpose wash in waiting? Possibly. At the University of Northampton our litmus test is our mission - Transforming Lives + Inspiring Change and its underlying purpose - to help people become all they can be.

But this approach is not without challenge. New research published in Harvard Business Review shows that in the US, workers as a whole are not well engaged with work, with Millennials the least engaged of all. However, Millennials do place greater emphasis on opportunities to learn and grow while seeking opportunities for career advancement.

And this is where universities as educators can help reinforce notions of purpose. From our perspective, educating the workforce of the future, purpose is becoming increasingly important. Students obviously need technical skills, the how, but they are also asking about the why - why should I work for a company that does nothing above and beyond a monthly pay cheque? Providing answers to these questions presents a challenge we must rise to. One solution is to provide a more all-encompassing learning environment that doesn't just pay lip-service to activities outside the taught component - so called extra-curricula activities, but embraces and codifies them as a core part of the student experience. At Northampton we do this in an integrated way that combines volunteering, placements, internships and other community-facing activities as part of a personal portfolio unique to our students. This record of achievement helps with employability and is run centrally. All this is part of a much larger commitment to social value creation reflected in our designation in 2013 as the only AshokaU University in England.

We further define purpose through our strategy for social impact that includes a commitment to delivering social value through four Changemaker Challenges linking education, health, heritage and entrepreneurship into a holistic package of activities that students, staff and communities can get behind. These activities are so fundamental they define our brand - a super-supportive, forward thinking University delivering real world impact. But even this is not entirely new. Many UK universities were founded on grand notions of civic duty but some have drifted of course. Rediscovering purpose in place - a powerful engagement where educators, policy makers, business and civil society and the third sector work to deliver real purpose, not in theory but in practice, and for the long term, is surely the outcome we all desire. And universities are supremely placed to take the lead.