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I met with Southampton University’s  Community Liaison Officer even before I officially started my post in October 2010. That’s a measure of how keen (and green) I was to get involved in the University’s community engagement work. Having returned to the city of my birth and childhood, it seemed only natural that I would play a role connecting the university to the surrounding city communities.

The problem was that this was the outgoing Community Liaison Officer, and his post was being made redundant. As far as I could tell from what he told me, the University also had a fairly narrow and self-serving idea of what community engagement should be: handling complaints from neighbours in the areas surrounding the main campus, and smoothing squabbles between students and residents.

Southampton isn’t the only university whose vision of community engagement isn’t as expansive as it might be. Partly this is because community engagement isn’t an income stream, and serves very little direct purpose to the sustainability of the institution, but partly because many institutions have no real heritage of meaningful interactions with their local surroundings.

And yet you hear of some universities which buck the trend, like Northampton. There, with the support of the RSA, the university is attempting to position itself as a social innovation hub. It’s early days, but the rhetoric is warming. Chris Durkin, Associate Director at the Northampton Institute of Urban Affairs, points to the idea of the university as an anchor institution, and it’s hard to argue with the appeal of such a description in theory. Further afield, Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, so often a trailblazer, has set up its own social enterprise incubator.

As Neil Lee at the Work Foundation argues, universities possess two unique qualities: scale and local connectedness. This should, in theory, enable them to drive local innovation systems and the knowledge base of local economies.

In practice, the connectedness of universities with their local surroundings is debatable, and this relationship is not strengthened by the flux that many HEIs find themselves in. The effective eradication of public funding means that the majority of UK universities are focussed on survival and nothing else. Northampton is an island of optimism, driven by a Vice-Chancellor willing to take a risk to secure the university a distinctive reputation.  Will others follow suit? The odds are against it, but if universities can’t be “trees” in the social innovation landscape, which institutions can be?