What’s the point of teaching social entrepreneurship?

Dr Pathik Pathak of Southampton University argues that teaching social entrepreneurship makes its mark, no matter the field of work the student eventually goes into.

Universities are caught in a seemingly irreconcilable contradiction. On one hand, successive governments have insisted that they have to work more closely with industry, producing graduates who can seamlessly fit into (and propel) our flagging knowledge economy.

One of the three proposed indicators for teaching excellence is employability – simply measured as the number of graduates in full-time employment or higher education six months after graduation.

On the other hand, universities have a duty – as public institutions – to critique and expose broken systems. Academic research often lays that bare, whether in terms of food, housing, employment or even government itself.

A large proportion of students also see themselves as agents of change, not continuity. In this context, social impact education can sometimes sit uncomfortably.

While the first wave of social entrepreneurship education emanated from business schools as an adjunct or alternative to mainstream entrepreneurship, it has evolved to become much more than that.

As Ashoka U’s founder Marina Kim has argued, social innovation is not only a discrete discipline in and of itself, but a lens through which every subject in higher education can be viewed.


Social impact education comes of age

Like the social entrepreneurship sector as a whole, the social impact education community is coming to realise that we need to realign our incentives for action from being the act of founding new ventures – as important as that is – to nurture the diversity of roles needed to grow our ecosystems.

The folly of “heropreneurship” continues to dominate some approaches, but the tide is turning. Pamela Hartigan of the Skoll Centre at Oxford University saw the spirit of social entrepreneurship as being: “the act of combining innovation, opportunity and  resourcefulness to address some of our most pressing challenges.” 

Founding new ventures isn’t the only expression of the socially entrepreneurial spirit, and assuming that it is divests the sector of talent and misuses it too.

There are other trends in social impact education which show how the sector is maturing. For a long time many HE courses were in thrall to the magic bullet of design thinking.

The superficiality of that approach has led to greater emphasis on the systems context; understanding problems and solutions landscapes so that social innovation could be positioned as a complement rather than as a replacement for state, private or third sector action.


The value of our education

As the sector develops and programmes proliferate, calls to understand our impact have grown louder. As a starting point in that discussion, we need to come to terms with the idea that students who participate in social entrepreneurship might not always enter the sector when they graduate.

Our own research on the motivations for social entrepreneurship among university students in the UK revealed that while there were powerful intrinsic motivations which initially attracted students (including dissatisfaction with charity and aid) they gained valuable skills for their personal employability.

Students reported that skills such as innovation, problem-solving, leadership, collaboration and cross-cultural competency were all cultivated through the act of social entrepreneurship.

They also left with an awareness that there were multiple pathways to systems change, and a determination to do so whether on their own or by influencing the behaviour of existing organisations across sectors.  

More than anything else, they had a strong vision of a career of value and purpose.

The job of social impact educators isn’t to produce a conveyer belt of social entrepreneurs starting their own ventures. As a community we need to set the agenda for our own metrics, as well as using our position in universities to square the circle between economic value and social purpose.

Photo credit: Redd Angelo/Unsplash