What is a Social Purpose University?

The University of the Arts, London (UAL) has published a Social Purpose Implementation Plan. The first for any higher education institute in the UK.

UAL is being loud and determined in its bid to go beyond teaching and research – but its role to help tackle the intertwined challenges of our time: climate change, social inequality, and the need for creativity to drive positive change. 

What do you think of its core thinking?


UAL acknowledges that socio-economic challenges are intertwined with climate issues. The onus is on institutions like UAL to pave the way, especially since those most affected often have the least say. They argue that HE institutions addressing one issue in isolation is not only ineffective but may exacerbate others.


UAL’s four priorities are a mix of environmental, social, and creative missions. But will they cut-through beyond academia? They feel fundamental for a sustainable and equitable future and the emphasis on creative freedom as a source of human wellbeing and a driver for disruptive innovation is especially intriguing. Creativity is not just about producing art—it’s about challenging norms and imagining something better.


The feedback from the UAL community showcases a range of perspectives. Some feel the efforts are not new, while others emphasise clarity and coherence in UAL’s social purpose. This feedback is a valuable goldmine, and shows how the institution have gone about this process. Transparency, authenticity, and genuine engagement has been promised throughout.

Embedding Social Purpose

The three pathways—Teaching, Research, and Operations—signify a holistic approach. It’s not just about what’s taught in classrooms, but also about the research undertaken, the operations of the university, and how the university projects itself to the outside world. This is all a journey. It’s heartening to see that UAL isn’t just looking for new labels for its marketing. There is a recognition that this will be messy and take time.

Accountability and Measurement

It’s all well and good to have lofty goals, but what’s crucial is the measurement. How will UAL track its progress? The focus on outcomes, routine data collection, and benchmarking against external standards is where they will start.

The outlined principles for the organisational shift indicate a deep cultural transformation. From ensuring that everyone sees social purpose as their job to committing to transparency and experimentation, UAL is setting the stage for a significant evolution, but they will need to track progress carefully.

UAL’s Social Purpose Implementation Plan is a brave and interesting.

The challenge will be in its execution, ensuring that the entire UAL community is on board, and continuously iterating based on feedback and changing global dynamics. 

Let’s see which other universities follow suit?

Does your company have a social purpose plan? If not, what would be in it?

Institutions like UAL are trying things out.

always possible helps organisations and busy leaders from many sectors to figure out how to change the world, one small decision at a time.

Listen to a conversation between Richard Freeman and Kit Messenger on The Possibility Club on why she quit her job as a headteacher to challenge the education system head-on. 

5 Big Questions podcast. Kit Messenger on the education system, trying new ways and the power of resigning