In the literature, one can find various definitions and understandings of what social entrepreneurship signifies. While there is some variation, all definitions state the following characteristics as central to social entrepreneurship:

  • Innovative use and combination of resources to pursue opportunities for catalysing social change or addressing social needs.
  • Creating social value and stimulating changes in the social sector; also sustaining social value
  • The generation and development of resources and innovations to stimulate social change

While these criteria mostly point to what entrepreneurial behaviour could involve, a culture of social entrepreneurship in higher education institutions consists foremost of values that support staff, students, and other relevant stakeholders to function as social entrepreneurs. However, these values can have different orientations which can range from the idea of a philanthropic higher education institution to a university in which social entrepreneurship to a university where social entrepreneurship is also primarily seen as a special form of entrepreneurship that focuses on the beneficial realisation of ideas in the social sector. Besides social entrepreneurship other terms, such as civic engagement, community engagement or civic university are used to point to this activity area of higher education institutions.

While higher education institutions have become more familiar with the entrepreneurial agenda in recent years, practitioners report that social entrepreneurship is frequently perceived as an alien concept, particularly in the social sciences and arts and humanities. Contributing to social value creation and social change opposes traditional values of these disciplines to some extent. Often, these disciplines understand their role as observing society and social change from a neutral and outside position, rather than being actively involved or contributing these processes. These differences in perception can bring about tension in staff and students as social entrepreneurship values do not match well with traditional disciplinary values.

Hazelkorn (2016) distinguishes three indicative institutional models that prevail in higher education institutions and among others also point to the values that are underlying these models (Hazelkorn 2016, p. 69):

  • Social justice model: “emphasizes students, service learning and community empowerment.” In the social justice model, the collaboration with (socially excluded) communities, their empowerment and to have an impact are at the heart of activities. In this model, the focus is more on teaching.
  • Economic development model: This model is more oriented towards knowledge transfer and creating innovations that support (regional) stakeholders in solving problems or furthering social change. Thus, here the focus is on research.
  • Public good model: This model would aim to embed social engagement in higher education institutions‘ activity areas. The model assumes that these institutions are strongly embedded in their closer and wider environment and engage in vivid relationships (with regional) public and social sector organisations. This collaboration would permeate all activities, contributing to the public good and social change would be their central focus.

These three models can help higher education institutions to select a structured approach when engaging in social entrepreneurship as selecting a focus can help designing a coherent and efficient strategy.

The goal

  • Selecting a clear-cut orientation of social entrepreneurship activities can help institutions develop focused strategies and activities and stimulate support from staff, students, and (regional) stakeholders.
  • When implementing or promoting social entrepreneurship, leadership of higher education institutions need to be aware of potential clashes between social entrepreneurship and academic values, as these can be at odds.
  • As social entrepreneurship will generate more immaterial values than funds and additional income, the values underlying social entrepreneurship need to be communicated clearly to generate support and legitimacy.

Examples of interventions at institutional level

There are very different interventions that can create social entrepreneurship values in higher education institutions, a set of selected interventions will be explained in detail in the section “interventions” of this inspiration fiche. Providing information on social entrepreneurship, as good practice examples or developing knowledge and capacity in staff and students, including social engagement in the mission strategies of universities can start up the process.

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Other relevant resources
  • Benneworth, Paul; Culum, B.; Farnell, T.; Kaiser, F.; Seeber, M.; Scukanec, N. et al. (2018): Mapping and Critical Synthesis of Current State-of-the Art on Community Engagement in Higher Education. Zagreb.
  • Reichert, Sybille (2019): The Role of Universities in Regional Innovation Ecosystems. European University Association. Brussels (EUA Study).
Links to selected HEInnovate case studies
  • Not covered in HEInnovate
Further reading
  • Apostolakis, Christos (2011): The role of higher education in enhancing social entrepreneurship. In IJSEI 1 (2), p. 124. DOI: 10.1504/IJSEI.2011.043739.
  • Cinar, Ridvan (2019): Delving into social entrepreneurship in universities: is it legitimate yet? In Regional Studies, Regional Science 6 (1), pp. 217–232. DOI: 10.1080/21681376.2019.1583602.
  • Cunha, Jorge; Benneworth, Paul; Oliveira, Pedro (2015): Social Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation. In Patricia Ordóñez de Pablos, Luís M. Carmo Farinha, João J. M. Ferreira, Helen Lawton Smith, Sharmistha Bagchi-Sen (Eds.): Handbook of Research on Global Competitive Advantage through Innovation and Entrepreneurship: IGI Global (Advances in Business Strategy and Competitive Advantage), pp. 616–639.
  • Hazelkorn, Ellen (2016): Contemporary debates part 2: initiatives, governance, and organisational structures. In J. B. Goddard, Ellen Hazelkorn, Louise Kempton, Paul Vallance (Eds.): The civic university. The policy and leadership challenges. Cheltenham UK: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp. 65–93.
  • Roslan, Muhammad Hamirul Hamizan; Hamid, Suraya; Ijab, Mohamad Taha; Yusop, Farrah Dina; Norman, Azah Anir (2020): Social entrepreneurship in higher education: challenges and opportunities. In Asia Pacific Journal of Education, pp. 1–17. DOI: 10.1080/02188791.2020.1859354.