The mission of today’s universities extends beyond teaching and research. Universities are “anchor institutions.” As such, they are expected to leverage their own economic power as well as their human and intellectual resources to improve health and well-being, and create value for society.

On many fronts, universities succeed. But to truly lead in social innovation, they need to rethink their impact strategies and the way they address the needs of community members. This involves increasing access to experiential learning for graduates in the social sciences and humanities whose career pathways are most likely to lead to employment in the social sector, local government and social services.

Experiential learning can take many forms, from internships and practicums to applied research, service learning and entrepreneurial experiences. The key is a commitment at the institutional level that focuses on reciprocity.

In a recent report, my team produced evidence that universities need to shift the focus of experiential learning in the social sector from placement for the purpose of service or program delivery. This would represent a departure from co-op and internship models in medicine and STEM fields such as engineering.

It would call for innovative models that are focused on capacity-building through which BOTH partners and students acquire skills and knowledge. While changing the dimensions of experiential learning programs in the social sector might take time, some creative thinking and new investments – or a redistribution of resources on the part of universities ­– would also create new attractive opportunities.

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The scale of the effort is not the problem. Universities contribute their own entrepreneurial efforts to support all manner of industries. The magnitude of resources that go toward infrastructure and fundraising is immense.

The McMaster Innovation Park, which recently grew to include Canada’s Global Nexus for Pandemic and Biological Threat is a good example. This is how universities can work with local, national and global partners around commercialisation and implementation of new medical technologies. These, in turn, may attract new investments and expertise that bring benefits regionally and nationally.

Most universities also have strong and well-curated relationships with provincial and federal governments. Researchers benefit from funding through established programs or government-funded third-party organizations (for example NSERC, CIHR, SSHRC, Mitacs or the Future Skills Centre). In return, they produce research on a range of issues from artificial intelligence to climate change.

Strategic plans for most Canadian universities also include a community engagement mandate with implications for the social and municipal sectors. They are committed to building partnerships to the benefit of their communities and to create social impact.

This connection to the social ecosystem is in line with their role as anchor institutions. There are however important gaps and missed opportunities when it comes to universities’ capacity to contribute to the social innovation and social impact ecosystem.

Some of these gaps can be filled by changing the way experiential learning is conducted. But first and foremost is a better understanding of the needs such programs can help address in the social sector, in particular needs around social change and innovation.

When practitioners and experts talk about social change, they are referring to processes that aim to resolve social issues. But social issues such as homelessness, violence and public health crises like the one created by COVID-19 are systemic and require solutions to be implemented across entire networks that are multilayered and interconnected.

The phrase “social innovation” is often used in discussion of social change and has become somewhat of a buzz word. In many contexts, it is used to refer to a collection of ideas, services, processes or frameworks that are developed or improved to meet social needs. Whether it is novel or incremental, the effect of innovation in the social sector is to transform aspects of the organizations whose purpose is social impact or some dimension of the relationships that exist in the social impact ecosystem.

The pandemic provides a vivid illustration of a “systems-level” issue. COVID-19 set off a public health crisis that has spread beyond the consequences of a physical illness. That’s because health is also determined by a range of economic and social factors. Public health issues extend further than just medical treatment or meeting demands for urgent or intensive care.

COVID-19 affected virtually all dimensions of personal and social life, from the conditions in which we work and learn to the rate of mortgages. Its effects were particularly dire for organizations that served the most vulnerable.

Actions to resolve global crises and to address problems that these crises create in our communities, require social and human research and, ultimately, “innovation.” They also require a skilled workforce fully prepared to tackle their complexity. This is why universities are crucial. They help their communities with resources talent and information supporting innovation in the social ecosystem.

But universities might need to reassess their current community engagement strategies. Community engagement in the social innovation ecosystem needs to be informed as much by community partners as it is by researchers and students. It must also be part of an integrated strategy that puts social and human science disciplines and programming at the centre of the effort.

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On the one hand, academic management needs to understand that an institutional-level community engagement mandate cannot rest on the shoulders of individual researchers with grants or on the willingness of individual instructors who dedicate their time to creating experiential learning.

On the other hand, strategies for experiential learning opportunities and community engagement programming need to be supported and encouraged as part of an integrated institutional strategy. This would be directly in line with the sort of systems-thinking that is needed for social change.

In particular, when developing experiential learning partnerships, universities should be thinking about scalability and reciprocity, which can increase the impact of community engagement. This, in turn, would require that we question assumptions about the aim and value of experiential learning.

Experiential learning allows graduates to gain skills that will help them transition into employment. It can also be part of a community engagement strategy that increases post-secondary institutions’ social capital and contribute to social innovation and systems change.

Universities can be anchors of their community, but only if their connection to the social sector creates value on all sides. Rethinking experiential learning to help community partners build capacity for innovation is a strategy that helps everyone win on all sides.

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Sandra Lapointe
Sandra Lapointe is professor of philosophy at McMaster University and project director for The/La Collaborative, an initiative dedicated to fostering better partnerships and talent-building around social science and humanities knowledge.

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